By Brittany Anas / NewsBreak Denver
(Westcliffe, Colo) At first glance, you could mistake Westcliffe’s observatory for a simple wooden shed in the middle of a park. But the Smokey Jack Observatory is a stargazer’s dream, with a retractable roof and a high-powered Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that helps visitors track the majestic night sky.
This humble but high-tech observatory in the Wet Mountain Valley is one of the best places to stargaze in not just Colorado but the country. Grassroots efforts by stargazers started a few decades ago to convince their neighbors and local businesses to dim the lights so the stars could shine brighter and the Milky Way would be visible.
Now, Colorado legislators want more areas of the state to achieve these types of International Dark Sky designations. To help, a newly signed law sets up a $35,000 fund to award microgrants to communities who want to preserve their night skies just like Westcliffe and its neighbor Silver Cliff did. The prime sponsors of House Bill 22-1382 were state Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon; state Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail; and state Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose.
“The Cliffs” make up one of the three dozen Dark Sky Communities in the world and with an elevation of 7,867 feet, they’re also the highest, putting amateur and advanced stargazers alike who come out for “star parties” closer to the heavens than any other designated dark sky spots around the world. In all, five of the world’s dark sky communities are in Colorado.
The newly approved Colorado tourism grant fund can be tapped to pursue any of the International Dark Sky designations, which, in addition to communities, include parks, reserves, sanctuaries and urban places.
Aaron Watson, the Colorado Chapter Chair of the International Dark-Sky Association, says the bill will give a boost to the state’s network of dark sky places, which also include Crestone, Norwood, Ridgway and Nucla and Naturita.
“Colorado’s beloved dark and starry night skies are truly a treasure,” Watson says.
Not only does artificial lighting make it difficult to see stars and get a glimpse at the Milky Way. But light pollution can also disrupt critters, as plants and animals depend on light-and-dark cycles to dictate their behaviors.
To pursue the designations, communities must meet a number of criteria pertaining to lighting restrictions. The rigorous application process also requires applicants to show robust community support for dark sky protection.
Snuggled in between the West Mountain and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff were already partly shielded from the region’s skyglow. However, the cities took additional steps to limit outdoor lighting. The campaign began in 1999 when night sky lover Smokey Jack negotiated an agreement with West Custer County Hospital District to use dark-sky friendly lighting fixtures. Education efforts led to trustees to install a test LED street light and the school district to install LED fixtures.
“So much about what makes our state special is how Coloradans and visitors experience our great vast outdoors, our wildlife, and the existential power of a starlit sky,” said Gov. Jared Polis in a statement. “It’s not only something to protect but is an economic driver for communities like Westcliffe and I’m excited that this bill will help promote responsible and sustainable tourism to enjoy the Milky Way and the wonders of the heavens.”
Sustainable astro tourism in Colorado? It’s written in the stars—or a newly inked law.