Looking for Orion’s Belt on a snowy Idaho evening

To see Orion’s Belt in the dark sky from the snowy streets of Ketchum

by Allen Best

KETCHUM, Idaho – Ketchum recently  was awarded a still-rare designation by the International Dark-Sky Association. The question is whether that designation as a dark sky community can be monetized through what is called astro-tourism.

The premise of astro-tourism is that people really do want to see Aquarius, Orion, and other constellations that were readily visible to Biblical shepherds.

Before Ketchum, the International Dark-Sky Association has made 15 other such community designations in the world, 11 of them in North America. They include Sedona and Flagstaff in Arizona and Westcliffe and Silver Cliff in Colorado.

The organization has also designated several dozen dark sky parks around the world, including Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

To be eligible for the designation, communities must adopt regulations that strongly discourage light pollution. Ketchum did that in 1999 with an ordinance that requires shielding of outdoor lighting fixtures and minimizes light output. The city council in the last year adopted updated regulations that may be among the most up-to-date in the nation.

If there were still some resistance to lighting regulations 15 years ago, they have disappeared. “I have yet to hear somebody say, ‘I hate the dark sky ordinance,’” says Micah Austin, the city’s planning director. Applicants for building permits accept the restrictions, and Austin thinks that’s because the community embraces the intent.

“I think people recognize the ability to walk out onto a snowy street in the middle of winter and seek Orion’s Belt is an experience they want to have. I think they recognize that their lives are made better.”

Unlike in so many matters, where planning initiatives are met with silence or opposition, there was strong and supportive public engagement to the updated regulations (See story below).

For the city to maintain its status, it must continue to protect the night sky through public outreach, including dark sky events.

Nearly 80 percent of people in North America are unable to see the Milky Way Galaxy from where they live, the result of light pollution, most of it created in the latter half of the 20th century, according to the “New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness,” by Fabio Falchi and others.

In Ketchum, the push toward slowing the encroachment of artificial lights was driven by Dr. Stephen Pauley. Now 77, he was an eye, nose, and throat specialist who moved to Ketchum and Sun Valley in 1991. Friends call him Dr. Dark.

Speaking with a New York Times reporter in 2003, he described dark sky preservation as a matter primarily of education. “It does not mean living in darkness,” said Pauley. “It means shining light where it belongs, on the ground or pavement, not in someone’s eyes, window or up into a space where it is wasted.”

This year, talking with the Idaho Mountain Express, he compared the loss of the night sky to that of coral reefs in the ocean or ice in the Arctic.

He said he hopes Ketchum becomes a model for other cities in the Mountain West. “There has to be an understanding of the dark.”

An even more important designation may be forthcoming, possibly before the end of 2017. The town is at the core of a proposed International Dark-Sky Reserve for central Idaho. It would be a first in the United States.

In Colorado, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff also hope to achieve that distinction along with the broader Wet Mountain Valley, but the effort to adopt regulations may have been slowed by the recall of two of the three Custer County commissioners. The proposed restrictions are part of the disagreement.

John Barentine, program manager for the International Dark-Sky Association, says that Ketchum’s application was more explicitly about driving tourism than other community applications.

“Like the others, it was partly about quality of life and preserving community character, but I think pretty clearly they hope to capitalize on people who will be coming to see the night sky from the to-be-established Reserve,” he tells Mountain Town News.

“‘Astrotourism’ is a bona fide motivator, particularly in the American West, driving establishment of not only protected areas like International Dark Sky Parks, but also so-called ‘Amenity West’ communities like Ketchum,” says Barentine.

Foot-candles, Kelvin scales and creating community buy-in for dark sky measures

Ketchum has updated its dark sky regulations in two key ways.

First, the new law establishes a cap on the color temperature for outdoor lights. Incandescent bulbs have a maximum of 2700 Kelvin. But LED lights allow a much broader range of Kelvin temperatures, even up to 8,000 and 9,000 Kelvin. The latter is blue and piercing, with the feel of a meat freezer.

The harm? Plenty, says the American Medical Association, which has issued a report that finds lights with higher Kelvin temperatures are harmful to humans and to wildlife, disrupting circadian rhythms.

Ketchum planners proposed a cap of 3,000 Kelvin lights, but community members wanted the gold standard: 2,700 Kelvin.

Micah Austin, the planning director, say it may be the most stringent standard in the nation.

A second provision establishes a light-trespass matrix of light infiltrating across property lines.  Light from somebody’s porchlight inevitably will shine into an adjacent property, what is called light trespass. But this establishes the limit.

How can you tell what’s too much? The town government has a meter to use in response to complaints, but an app that can be downloaded to smart phones does a good job of measuring the foot-candle brightness that would violate the standard.

Regulation will be complaint driven, but Austin says there’s strong community buy-in to these standards.

Part of that buy-in has been driven by the active participation of the Idaho Conservation League, which has an active presence in Ketchum. — Allen Best

Allen Best