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Colorado mountain communities invest in keeping their skies dark

Colorado mountain communities invest in keeping their skies dark
Colorado mountain communities invest in keeping their skies dark 03:08

If you've seen the dark skies over places like the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, you know what we're talking about here. More and more Colorado communities are looking into officially optimizing their stargazing potential, not only to pull in tourists but to simply have a better atmosphere for their residents and wildlife.

Dani Robben, chair of Dark Sky Colorado, is part of a combined effort along with the Colorado Department of Tourism which helps communities that are interested in getting the certification to become a "dark sky" community.

Since that process is a little tricky for the uninitiated, they're there to help communicate  -- like Breckenridge, which is in the process of applying for the distinction -- make it through the paperwork and checklists. That includes things like measuring the amount of light that's leaking into the sky -- dimming the starlight by proxy -- and adjusting city lights and residential in the process. 

It's also less obvious things, like wavelength frequency for lighting. You might have heard that "blue light" from phone screens is bad for you before bed. It's a similar idea.

"We know that blue or short wavelength light is really detrimental to human health," Robben said. "It travels further in the atmosphere of our environment. So making sure that your lighting is warm colored or more of that amber tone is really important."

Breckenridge's initial assessment of adjustments to lighting already in town to make sure it's not escaping into the atmosphere comes out to $3.6 million, so, what comes with this type of investment? Colorado's Department of Tourism said more than you might expect. They're going so far as to say it's an untapped (or, under-tapped) Colorado resource.

"We have a competitive advantage here within Colorado to really advance these concepts," Andrew Grossmann, director of the state's Office of Destination Development explained.

"Habitually, when you're growing up and your parents say, 'turn off the light when you leave the room' -- it's a pretty similar concept when you're outside," Grossman said.

The night sky belongs to all of us and it's free to look at in amazement. But dollars come into towns from their efforts for overnight stays in places folks might otherwise just drive through.

Grossmann said some of the communities who are struggling to modernize their economies could benefit from something like this.

"If you look at it, look at places like Moffat County, you know, for me, (they have) true opportunities to really promote their outdoor recreation product and then tie it into a stargazing-style experience," Grossmann said.

So getting the certification of Dark Sky is a potential tourism boost too, so long as you can make it through the certification process. But the state is willing to help communities do that; so much so that it's allotted $1 million to have folks help them over the finish line.

It's still on the communities themselves though to make the required changes to make the night sky shine.

"You might need to retrofit some of your lighting," Grossmann said. "One important thing that I always share with folks that I learned from Dark Sky Colorado, is that we believe in dark skies, not dark streets. So it's- a lot of it is basically shielding light so it doesn't go up and it stays down."

Robben said it's a simple rule of thumb: "We want lighting to be pointed towards the ground where there's a beneficial use."

Aside from natural beauty, health benefits and potential tourism opportunities, dark skies help add a shiny badge to a location that might be looking for something to set them apart. Not everyone can achieve the level of dark sky that's required, so it's a bit of an exclusive club in that sense.

Places on the front range like Denver or Colorado Springs might have a harder time achieving something that Breckenridge could.

"There is an urban sky certification," Grossmann said. "The city of Durango is actually working towards dark sky certification, that's one of the locations that we provided a technical assistance grant to in the past. I think it's a little harder in the front range and that's just that's just the honest truth."

"We know that we've done some sky quality measurements a little bit west of Colorado Springs and I believe that they're beneath the threshold of what would allow for certification," he continued. "So when you're in the front range and the light dome from the front range, I do believe that would impact your ability to get certified. But it doesn't mean that you can't advance strategies to reduce light pollution."

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