Dark Skies of Southern-Central Colorado

Photo by Cam Benton An entrant in SLV GO!'s Dark Sky photo contest

The Sangre de Cristo Dark Sky Reserve

SAN LUIS VALLEY -- San Luis Valley Great Outdoors (SLV GO!) and partners throughout the San Luis Valley, Wet Mountain Valley and Huerfano County, are collaborating to protect one of Southern-Central Colorado’s most valuable resources: the night sky. Through community partnership and the establishment of light regulations, formal agreements, and long-term planning, SLV GO! Intends to submit an application to the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) in February of 2022 to create the Sangre de Cristo Dark Sky Reserve, becoming the world’s largest dark sky designated area. This effort is taking place to combat light pollution, increase energy efficiency, enhance astro-tourism in the region, improve health and safety, and to protect the environment.

Motivation to protect Southern Colorado’s dark sky resource started gaining traction when the San Luis Valley Museum Association got a grant from the Colorado Tourism Office to create a “dark sky tour” called Colorado Stargazing: Experience the Night in 2020. The tour connects several Colorado locations known for their dark skies and incredible stargazing opportunities, including places that are IDA dark sky certified like the Westcliffe and Silver Cliff communities, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and the Slumgullion Center near Lake City. The tour was the first of its kind nationwide and was a boon for the local communities. The tour brought in tourists to small rural communities that normally don’t see a lot of foot traffic. And one of the best things about stargazing, is that visitors have to spend the night. Visitors put money into local economies by staying at motels, spending money at restaurants, and at local shops. With this marketing strategy, rural towns and communities recognized the economic potential for astro-tourism in the region - and well, the stars aligned, and the idea of a region wide dark sky reserve was set in motion.

Since the tour in 2020, the Sangre de Cristo Dark Sky Coalition was formed to bring community members, land agencies, and local organizations together to collaborate on this dark sky initiative. Spearheading the initiative is SLV GO!, a local nonprofit in Alamosa whose mission is to provide residents and visitors throughout the San Luis Valley with accessible and inclusive outdoor recreation opportunities that connect communities, improve wellness, encourage stewardship, and contribute to the economic vitality of the region. Coalition partners like The Orient Land Trust, Colorado College, the Town of Crestone, and Great Sand Dunes National Park (to name a few), are all helping take sky quality measurements and collate data to present to the IDA next winter. This summer, the coalition will begin taking an outdoor lighting inventory to identify lighting in need of retrofitting or replacement. The collaborative work of the coalition exemplifies the collective commitment to protect and preserve the dark skies of southern-central Colorado and to share them with the public.

The Dark-Sky Movement is led by the International Dark Sky Association to combat light pollution worldwide. The increased and widespread use of artificial light is not only disrupting our view of the night sky, but is adversely affecting our environment, our safety, our energy consumption, and our health. As artificial lights flood night skies, the Earth’s natural rhythmic pattern of day and night is disrupted and causes disarray in ecological systems. For instance, the illumination of the night hinders the ability of prey to hide from predators at night, causes confusion for migrating birds, and disrupts nighttime breeding rituals in amphibians, interfering with reproduction and reducing populations. Artificial light also affects humans circadian rhythm by suppressing the hormone melatonin, causing lack of sleep, and hindering our immune system. Not only is artificial light a detriment to human and environmental health, but is often a waste of energy. The IDA estimates “In an average year in the U.S. alone, outdoor lighting uses about 120 terawatt-hours of energy, mostly to illuminate streets and parking lots. That’s enough energy to meet New York City’s total electricity needs for two years!” Lighting that is used in excess or that is turned on when and where it is not needed is wasteful and results in light pollution. Light pollution is often seen as “glare” which causes visual discomfort, or “light trespass” when light falls where it is not intended or needed. But light pollution can be relatively easily solved through thoughtful policies that prevent overly bright, poorly targeted, improperly shielded, and in many cases, unnecessary lighting. Thoughtful lighting results in more focus on what you want to be illuminated, rather than light being wasted by spilling into the sky.

The good news is that light pollution is relatively easy to reverse and to prevent! Groups like the Sangre de Cristo Dark Sky Coalition are working hard to engage decision makers in surrounding jurisdictions to adopt responsible lighting policies. Find an organization near you that is combatting light pollution and see what you can do to help. Maybe it’s simply writing a letter of support for that organization or attending a planning commission meeting to voice your concerns about light pollution. Think small too, because every little bit helps! For instance, take inventory of outdoor lighting at your home and change out insufficient lighting for dark sky friendly lighting. Look at the lights on your walkway, entryway, and garage. Is the light directed at your feet or is it spilling out into the sky? Find light fixtures that are shielded and give off a “warm” glow - this will help direct lighting and minimize short wavelength lighting that causes harm to wildlife. Also remember to turn off your outdoor lighting when it’s time for bed, or consider installing timers and dimmers. Lastly, encourage your family, friends and neighbors to consider dark sky friendly lighting! Imagine a natural night sky in your backyard.

San Luis Valley Great Outdoors (SLV GO!) was originally formed in 2013 as a coalition by a group of citizens, educators, and community leaders who recognized the tremendous opportunity to enhance recreational experiences, improve wellness, and connect the communities across the six-county region of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. Today, SLV GO! has four full time staff members and a growing list of more than 40 partners. SLV GO! gained 501(c)(3) status in April of 2018.Practicing a collective impact model, SLV GO! brings stakeholders together and provides leadership for effective collaboration among partners with shared goals. They are the only organization working collectively with nonprofits, businesses, federal agencies, and municipalities to improve health and quality of life via trails and outdoor recreation in the San Luis Valley.



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