Preserving the dark skies of a Colorado mountain valley

Will Wet Mountain Valley become the first to attain new dark-sky status?

A barn near Westcliffe in Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley. Photo/Mike Pach of www.3peaksphoto.com

by Allen Best

WESTCLIFFE, Colo. – Custer County veers libertarian in its politics, reliably voting Republican and, in a general way, shunning regulation.

But in outdoor lighting restrictions, it’s exceptional. Two of the county’s three small towns—located in the Wet Mountain Valley about three hours southwest of Denver— have ordinances that sharply limit light pollution and light trespass. That work has made the towns a destination for people who want specifically to see a sky of glittering stars, including something no longer attainable in most urban areas: a view of the Milky Way.

Now, dark sky proponents are seeking similar regulations to govern unincorporated areas and possibly enabling the valley to become the first international dark sky reserve in the United States. In Idaho, the communities of Ketchum, Sun Valley and Blaine County are similarly seeking that same distinction offered by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Already, some of the familiar arguments have been raised. At a recent meeting of county commissioners covered by the Wet Mountain Tribune, one rancher said he needed the light in his yard to serve as a beacon when it was snowing.

Jim Bradburn, the president of the non-profit Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley tells Mountain Town News that he thinks he and other advocates will prevail over coming months despite such objections and now a recall election of the three county commissioners in which regulation of lights has become an issue.

“It will happen,’ he sasy of the regulations,” because I have more and more support in the valley to do this.” But it will take more time than he thought before.

Bradburn expects to win because there are too many upsides. The local tourist industry gains with its expanded claim for dark skies, Ranchers will get more lumens on the ground, where they are useful, and not in the sky. And the local electrical co-operative, San Isabel Electric, can get more efficient use of its product.

You have to want to go to the Wet Mountain Valley to get there. It’s an hour from an interstate highway. The low-rising Wet Mountains define the valley’s eastern flanks, and to the west the Sangre de Cristo Range rises sharply to 14,000 feet and above.

Westcliffe, the county seat, and Silver Cliff sit cheek by jowl, together boasting 1,200 residents. Outlying are ranch lands. If the valley were closer to a city or a major highway, it probably would have been subdivided long ago.

But ranchers themselves in the 1970s chose to make subdividing into ranchettes just a little harder than elsewhere in Colorado. The minimum size is 80 acres on the valley floor—more than double what is allowed in most of rural Colorado—and 50 acres in the more wooded Wet Mountains. It was an agricultural valley that remains agricultural. The result is that lights don’t dominate the landscape, blotting out the stars.

“It’s pretty amazing when you see it for the first time,” says Bradburn of the night sky. “When people come here, they are just flabbergasted by the Milky Way.”

A retired architect, Bradburn and his wife, Gayle, moved to the Wet Mountain Valley in 2004 because of its proximity to the Sangre de Cristo Range. Bradburn has climbed all the 14,000-foot peaks in the range and all the others in Colorado, too. He also climbed Denali and Aconcagua, the highest peaks respectively in north and South America, and some other notable peaks.

Jim Bradburn came up with the idea of the iconic tents at Denver International Airport.

In his professional career, Bradburn is best known for his design of the tent-like terminal at Denver international airport. As recounted in a 2014 article in Colorado Central magazine, Bradburn had come to Colorado to oversee the construction of the Helen Bonfils Theater Complex in downtown Denver. Later, at Fentress Bradburn, he was responsible for turn the design of a New Orleans architect into reality at the new airport. But that design was $54 million over budget. Thinking of native Americans of the Great Plains, Bradburn sketched a design mimicking tents. It became the reality, although the official story was changed to the idea that the structure was meant to replicate the Rocky Mountains.

Later in his career, Bradburn was also involved in designing the 51,000-square-foot National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyo.

The National Museum of Wildlife Art at Jackson, Wyo.

In the Wet Mountain Valley, he and his wife live on a 447-acre property, where he designed a solar heated green house and an observatory. Astronomy, according to the Colorado Central story, is among his passions.

Bradburn’s organization first took aim at the two towns. It took about seven years from the start when, he says, the common reaction was: “Don’t tell me what to do.”

Instead of arguing the impact to neighbors who wanted to see the dark sky, he made an economic argument: Do this, and we can get designated as a dark sky community—which will lead to a more tourists.

“Which is exactly what has happened,” says Bradburn.

Motel and bed-and-breakfast operators have plentiful anecdotal evidence from customers that they came to see at night what they can’t at home.

The dark sky business has been helped by a host of national and regional reports. Westcliffe and Silver Cliff were in the New York Times and USA Today as well as CNN and NBC, among many others.

The sun sets and the stars come out over Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Range. Photo/Mike Pach of www.3peaksphoto.com

Smoothing the way in the two towns was an offer by Dark Skies Inc. to help pay for the switching out of offending lights that pointed skyward. Contributions augmented by a 10 percent match from a community fund have yielded $23,000 in the last two years. The money is used to defray implementation costs such as a light fixture on a school that was replaced with a hooded fixture, to spread the light to the ground.

One of Bradburn’s arguments seeks to leverage the support of San Isabel Electric, the electrical provider, which actually owns the lights on the ranches. If lower-energy LED lights can be installed and the light deployed effectively to the ground, not the sky, less power will be needed. That means the electrical co-operative can serve more customers (technically co-op members) with the same amount of electricity. That means it spends less on upgrading infrastructure to handle larger volume of electricity.

This would produce more profit to the electrical co-op and its members, including the ranchers, more useful light for the ranchers, and less light pollution to sully the dark sky, he says.

For now, it’s a waiting game. The county planning commission is await the outcome of the November recall election before issuing its recommendation, but Bradburn remains confident he will prevail. “Time is on our side,” he says.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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