By Kristen Grant
As a child growing up in rural Connecticut, my favorite summer activity was to drag my sleeping bag out to one of my Dad’s fields and sleep under the stars. No tent for me in those days, as I didn’t want anything to obscure my view of the glorious night sky above me. I would huddle in the bag, leaving only my eyes exposed as ravenous mosquitos attempted to find a fleshy landing spot on which could indulge their need for blood.
I would stay awake as long as I could, marveling and wondering about the mysteries of the stars as the constellations wheeled their way across the sky above me. Eventually I would fall asleep, and wake in the morning wet and cold and covered in bug bites. These annoyances were a small price to pay for the chance to contemplate the majesty and mystery of the cosmos.
In the years since then, I have been troubled by the decline of starry skies in many places in the world. As we have become more and more industrialized, it’s impossible not to notice the brightening of the night and the seeming disappearance of stars from the sky above. The stars haven’t disappeared, of course, but have become cloaked by the massive amount of light pollution that we generate. The rapid brightening of the night sky over the past 100 years not only diminishes our joy in seeing the stars, but has negative health and environmental impacts as well.
I’m not the only one who is concerned about this. Walter Graff, former Senior Vice President of the Appalachian Mountain Club, had it on his radar screen, and all the work he did to preserve the Maine outdoors over the years inspired Jenny Ward, AMC’s Maine Business and Community Relations Manager, and others at the AMC, to take on the conservation of the Maine night sky. No small task, right?
I was able to connect with Jenny in early June and she brought me up to speed on how this initiative is going.
It turns out there is an International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) that has similar goals on an international level and provides a process to receive a Dark Sky certification after undergoing a rigorous application process. Jenny is coordinating the effort by AMC, in conjunction with the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council (PCEDC), to successfully complete the application process.
“We are working to apply for the ‘Dark Sky Reserve’ designation for the 173,000 acres that surround AMC’s ownership core and many neighboring towns,” Jenny explained. “We partnered with the PCEDC because the designation will encourage astro-tourism and increase economic activity in the area while conserving our dark skies.”
The application process involves identifying sources of light pollution in the area, estimating the cost to reduce that pollution and applying for funding to accomplish the reduction. Some of the pollution can be reduced by simple measures, such as putting a light on a timer so that it shuts off when not needed. Other measures include replacing current street lights with Dark Sky friendly lights. When this process is successfully completed, the Maine Woods will be only the second place in the U.S. and the third in North America to receive this highest and most complete designation.
“The solution does not have to be high-tech or expensive,” Jenny stated. “I am noticing Dark Sky friendly lighting at big box stores like Lowe’s.”
From the AMC Maine Woods International Dark Sky brochure… “The deep Maine Woods of Piscataquis County, which the AMC also calls home, offer the last remaining naturally dark sky in the Eastern US. Together we’re advocating for the permanent protection of the night sky, educating the public about night sky conservation, and promoting the environmentally responsible outdoor lighting that will help get us there. Our goal is to secure this rare piece of Earth as a designated International Dark Sky Reserve as a gateway to a stronger understanding of our connection with the environment—and of our place in the universe.”
The group is making headway on the application process and has received a letter of support from the IDA to apply. Right now, they are pursuing funding for the infrastructure changes needed and anticipate making those changes in 2021.
Jenny notes that “it really is a win/win for the communities involved. They save money by reducing waste and inefficiencies, maintain the integrity of their towns and receive the immediate benefit of seeing the stars by removing the light pollution from the environment.”