Dark week for star-gazers as Colorado county rejects limits on lights
by Allen Best
WESTCLIFFE, Colo. – Dark sky proponents in Colorado’s Custer County had hoped to become the first international dark-sky reserve in North America certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.
They were buoyed in their effort by the great success of dark-sky designations for Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, the two adjoining towns in the Wet Mountain Valley.
It didn’t happen, though. Idaho earned that distinction late last year for a broad swath of the state that includes the headwaters of the Salmon River as well as the land around Ketchum and Sun Valley.
But even being No. 2 may now be out of the question. Last week the local planning commission rejected a resolution to change the definition of light pollution.
Partly at issue has been the intensity of new energy efficient LED lights. With less energy, they produce more light, and more disruptive white light. Dark sky proponents in Custer County wanted to throttle down the color temperature to 3,000 Kelvin, a warmer and less intense light. A regular incandescent or Halogen light has a “color” of about 2,700 Kelvin. More industrial settings, such as the lights you often see on the sides of warehouses, use 5,000 Kelvin lights or even stronger.
John Barentine, director of conservation for the International Dark-Sky Association, says removing all reference to light pollution in the county ordinances, as county commissioners want, “would be a significant step backward.”
Barentine tells Mountain Town News that he’s dubious the Wet Mountain Valley will achieve designation as a dark-sky preserve. “It would be a very uphill effort, if not outright impossible,” he said by e-mail.
For Idaho to achieve the designation, it took amended regulations in three counties as well as towns.
The Wet Mountain Tribune reported a packed courtroom for the meeting. In persuading the planning commissioners, opponents warned of government over-reach. “We don’t need the strong arm of government,” said one individual, who instead advocated voluntary compliance. Opponents of the limitations on light-pollution also fretted about fines imposed and possible jail time meted out to offenders.
Jim Bradburn, president of the Dark Skies, Inc. of the Wet Mountain Valley, said he and other proponents will continue to make their case. The valley’s ranchers opposed the proposed restriction on high-intensity lights. He says that as American’s shift their diets away from beef, the valley will need economic development strategies. The dark sky is an asset that can be used to draw overnight visitors from Denver, three hours away, and from Colorado Springs, about 90 miles away.
“They all love dark skies, but when you ask them how are they going to preserve it, nobody seems to have an answer,” says Bradburn of the rural property owners. “The voluntary thing is great, but we have been doing voluntary now for 10 years, and the lights keep showing up. … It’s not working,” he tells Mountain Town News.
Located along the Sangre de Cristo Range in south-central Colorado, Custer County has often had fractious political fights. In November, two of the three county commissioners were recalled.