Old Snowmass Working To Become First ‘Dark Sky Community’ In The Valley

Old Snowmass Working To Become First ‘Dark Sky Community’ In The Valley

Martha Ferguson is passionate about observing and enjoying what the night sky has to offer. From viewing constellations to watching the moon rise, it is one of the things she loves about living in the rural ranching community of Old Snowmass, which she has called home since 1984.

But with the influx of people moving to the Roaring Fork Valley over the past few years, she began to notice more light pollution interfering with her ability to enjoy the night sky.

“I get up sometimes at three or four in the morning and because I have an eastern exposure I can see a lot of beautiful stuff,” Ferguson said. “I got up early one morning and I looked out and somebody across the way had two gigantic columns of light blasting through the night, and the glare just took away any kind of view of the eastern sky. I was frustrated and I thought, ‘This is not right, there must be something I can do.'”

This incident led her to research options for her community during which she came across an organization called Dark Sky International that assists national parks, communities, towns, and cities around the globe to tackle the problem of light pollution and offer solutions on how to bring it down.

Dark Sky International defines light pollution as “the human-made alteration of outdoor light levels from those occurring naturally” that negatively affect many parts of the world, including migratory birds, pollinators, sea turtles, and mammals, including humans.

She brought the idea to the Snowmass Capitol Creek Caucus (SCCC) soon after to see if she could drum up support for a Dark Sky Initiative movement. Established in 1974, the Caucus is a nonprofit neighborhood organization that is focused on preserving the natural environment rural character of Colorado’s Snowmass Creek and Capitol Creek valleys.

“I wanted to introduce the idea and see if they might be interested in participating,” Ferguson said. “I had such a good response, everybody was like unanimous, ‘Yes, let’s do this.'”

For the past 18 months, Ferguson has been out educating and lobbying for the reduction of light pollution, rejoining the board of the Snowmass Capitol Creek Caucus, consulting with Pitkin County on lighting codes, and doing outreach to other caucuses and communities in both the Roaring Fork Valley and nearby regions within Colorado.

Continuing that effort, on Thursday the SCCC and the recently founded organization WildSky Old Snowmass will be presenting a talk entitled, “Stars and Stripes: Preserving the Dark Night with Dr. Jeffrey Hall,” at The Arts Campus at Willits (TACAW) to help further educate the public. The event is free and open to anyone with registration.

Hall is the executive director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and will be speaking on Lowell’s ongoing legacy of cutting-edge research of the solar system and beyond using the Lowell Discovery Telescope — and how that research began to be challenged by the steady invasion of light pollution. As a result, he worked extensively on dark sky preservation in Flagstaff and throughout Arizona which resulted in Flagstaff becoming the World’s First International Dark Sky City in 2001. 

He said there are several reasons why we should be concerned about the effects of light pollution and interested in curtailing it where possible. First, as an astronomer understanding the universe and being able to see what’s out there is incredibly important, but it goes beyond that.

“There are well-documented ecological and environmental impacts, both in the plant world and the animal world, and food chains and navigation and reproductive cycles,” Hall said. “The medical community is increasingly aware of impacts on human health, for people living in very brightly-lit areas, where you disrupt your circadian rhythms and an increasing correlation between that and the incidence of certain diseases like diabetes, certain forms of cancer, and mental well-being. And finally, the sky is part of our cultural heritage.”

A big issue is the increase of outdoor LED lights which scatter blue light and a lot of pollution, skyglow, and glare. The good news is there are tangible and simple steps that everyone all take to mitigate some of the worst effects of LED lighting like replacing LED lights with more dark-sky-friendly alternatives, turning off interior lights when not in use, switching off exterior lights, or using motion sensor lights that turn off automatically.

“There are things you can do that really would mitigate some of the worst effects of LED lighting, that they’re not onerous to implement, and they don’t stop people from lighting their property in safe and sensible ways,” Hall said.

Alongside events like the one at TACAW on Thursday, Martha Ferguson has also been working with Pitkin County commissioners and talking to them over the past couple of years regarding lighting codes and Old Snowmass moving toward applying for Dark Sky Designation.

“She has been so active and so wonderful to work with,” said Larisa LaLonde, Pitkin County planner and zoning. “Martha’s been very patient and she’s moving ahead like, ‘We’re going for our Dark Sky certification, we just hope that the codes are going to catch up to us.’ And I think that’s where we’re at right now. It seems to be all kind of coming together.”

Last Friday, May 10, Pitkin County released an updated version of the lighting code to the public on their website, which has been in the works for four years. She said that the county based the new codes on best practices and are in line with what other communities are doing on the Western Slope that is working.

Next, the county will hold two public events to talk through the changes, have an open discussion, and get feedback from the community before moving forward, the first being at 6 p.m. May 29 at the Carbondale Library followed by one at noon May 30 at the Pitkin County Library.

“We tried to find a middle ground and wanted to keep it very simple so people understand what’s expected of them,” LaLonde said. “So we aren’t making judgment calls. We’re saying, “This is how you light and these are the types of fixtures that are appropriate.'”

With these new codes, Ferguson is one step closer to applying to Dark Sky International for the Snowmass Capitol Creek Caucus to become recognized as a Dark Sky Community.

“The most important thing I want to get out there is we’re not saying you can’t have lights. What we’re saying is be smart about your lights,” Ferguson said. “What we’re doing is about awareness and education. It is a really good thing, unlike many other forms of pollution, light pollution is reversible.”


By: Sarah Girgis I The Aspen Times I May 14, 2024

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