Seeks community’s support for reducing light pollution
Long, dark nights may be ahead for Winthrop, the Methow Valley and beyond — and that would be a good thing, according to a group of local activists.
The Methow Dark Sky Coalition, an nonprofit organization that got its start over beers and discussions at a local pub, has put together a proposal that, fully realized, would create a huge “dark sky community” devoted to reducing light pollution and making stargazing even more brilliant, with the Methow Valley at its center.
The coalition has conducted research on how dark skies communities have been established in other parts of the country, and its members believe the Methow is an ideal place to put the same principles and practices into effect. There are guidelines and demanding requirements that must be met to be certified as a dark skies community, through the auspices of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). The Arizona-based organization recognizes several types of dark sky designations.
According to the IDA website (www.darksky.org), as of August 2019, the organization has certified more than 120 International Dark Sky Places worldwide across six continents, comprising more than 34,700 square miles. Sixteen Dark Sky Communities have been certified in the United States. The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve is a region of 1,416 square miles of remote and largely rugged lands in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho.
The local coalition took its proposal to the Winthrop Town Council last week, after having previously presented it to the Winthrop Planning Commission. Action by the town to embrace the dark skies community concept is key to the coalition’s efforts. The coalition’s presentation included a detailed draft ordinance for town leaders to consider, which references considerations such as “light trespass.”
In a subsequent memo to the council, the Planning Commission noted that the town’s comprehensive plan encourages efforts to “encourage efficient use of outdoor lighting to reduce light pollution and conserve energy while providing for public safety. Winthrop will encourage a nighttime environment that includes the ability to view the stars against a dark sky, use of energy-efficient lights, appropriate levels of outdoor lighting for specific areas and uses, and use of shielding techniques that direct light downward.”
While applauding the coalition’s work, the Planning Commission recommended an “incremental approach” and cautioned that “the proposed ordinance language is far-reaching, and greatly restricts lighting in ways that could be costly and may not initially have widespread support. We believe a process that emphasizes education and adopts new rules with an incremental approach would be more successful.”
The Planning Commission suggested that the town schedule a public workshop later this year to provide information and get public feedback. The commission pointed out that holding such a meeting in the fall “would allow for a participatory workshop with opportunities for the public to consider existing light impacts.”
The workshop could be followed up with consideration of a “pared-down ordinance focused initially on commercial lighting, and synced with Westernization requirements.”
At last week’s council meeting, the Methow Dark Sky Coalition representative Kyrie Jardin — co-owner of Methow Reservations and a member of the town’s Westernization Design Review Board — offered a power-point presentation on the broader topic of what a dark sky “Methow Valley Review District” might look like. At more than 900,000 acres, as proposed it would be the largest dark sky reserve in the nation. It would include most of the Methow Valley, extending north to Canada and west to the North Cascades.
As defined by the IDA, a dark sky reserve applies to an area “possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment, and that is specifically protected for it scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment.”
A reserve would include a “core region” — where the darkest skies would prevail, in this case including public lands north of Mazama — and a “peripheral region” that would include Twisp and Winthrop.
According to Jardin’s presentation, requirements for a dark skies reserve include adoption of lighting ordinances by the affected communities; adoption of a “lighting management plan” for the preserve and designation of the core and peripheral areas by the county; approval by relevant state and federal agencies; consistent reporting by the coalition or some other organized group to IDA; and subsequent monitoring.
Goals for the Methow Valley, Jardin said, would include protecting the existing dark skies environment, improving quality of life, reducing the harmful effects of lighting on wildlife, and creating an attraction for “astro-tourists” during the tourism shoulder seasons.
Jardin offered assurance to residents that “we’re not coming to take away your lights.” Dark sky implementation would occur only when and where it’s needed, and would be phased in over at least 10 years, he said.
Jardin said the Methow Dark Sky Coalition has, so far, gained nonprofit status, met with representatives of various local governments and organizations, and started a “dark sky inventory” using sensors placed around the valley.
The Methow Conservancy will host a dark skies discussion at its Nov. 5 “First Tuesday” program, Jardin said.
Jardin said that concerns about light pollution in Winthrop jump-started discussions that led to formation of the coalition. He noted that popular LED lights used on many buildings in Winthrop are efficient but create more light pollution. In his presentation, Jardin cited a study showing that night-time radiance from the Winthrop area has been growing by about 7% annually since 2013.