A Driftless Region county is aiming to be a new frontier in protecting Wisconsin's darkest skies

·9 min read

In college, Scott Lind spent a summer working in Yellowstone National Park, where he would climb up to the roof of his dorm at night to lie down and look at the stars.

When people think of the world's darkest skies, those are the places they're picturing. Massive expanses of natural beauty unobstructed by city lights, such as the national parks that dot the American West, or islands in the middle of the ocean.

But today, Lind is helping bring recognition to dark skies much closer to home.

He's part of a team that will soon petition the International Dark Sky Association to designate three Driftless Region properties — the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, Wildcat Mountain State Park and Tunnelville Cliffs State Natural Area — as an international dark sky park.

The association, which began its dark sky places program in 2001 to recognize "excellent stewardship of the night sky," has most of its U.S. parks scattered out west, in Bryce Canyon, Death Valley, Zion and Joshua Tree, to name a few.

RELATED: Looking for more stars? Here are the five international dark sky places closest to Wisconsin

RELATED: Newport State Park designated as Wisconsin's first 'dark sky' park

RELATED: 15 Wisconsin places you have to visit in the summer

Few are in the Midwest, and Wisconsin has just one: Newport State Park, at the tip of Door County on the shores of Lake Michigan, which has had the designation for five years.

Lind retired in December from a career in lighting design, and though he understands that a dark sky park in western Wisconsin could bring a boost in tourism for the surrounding communities, his primary goal — which this project serves — is to make as much of the Earth as dark as possible.

The Milky Way is seen over a covered bridge as the stars shine bright in the night sky at Kickapoo Valley Reserve in La Farge on Saturday, June 18, 2022. The park is attempting to be designated as an international dark sky park, only the second of such parks in Wisconsin.
The Milky Way is seen over a covered bridge as the stars shine bright in the night sky at Kickapoo Valley Reserve in La Farge on Saturday, June 18, 2022. The park is attempting to be designated as an international dark sky park, only the second of such parks in Wisconsin.

"If we get the messaging right and can explain it, some (people who visit) are going to take that message home and act on it," he said.

Light pollution, mostly driven by the use of artificial light at night, has increased nearly 50% worldwide in the last 25 years, a summer 2021 study in the scientific journal Remote Sensing found.

The International Dark Sky Association suggests light pollution can have negative impacts on wildlife, human health and safety, and energy consumption. Bright lights in cities can draw some species of birds away from their migratory routes, and exposure to blue light at night can disrupt humans' circadian rhythms, hurting sleep quantity and quality.

In 2016, it was estimated that nearly 80% of the population in North America couldn't see the Milky Way. Fans of the night sky say that carries harms that transcend the physical.

Seeing the stars at Yellowstone made Lind realize his place in the universe, he said. Wisconsin's darkest skies, if protected, can offer the same perspective to others.

Dark sky designation is a heavy lift, but those involved say it's worth it

Earning a dark sky park designation isn't just about whether the skies are dark enough. It requires things like lighting changes and community outreach, making the application process a stringent one that can take years.

At Newport State Park in Door County, park naturalist Beth Bartoli said getting recognition from the International Dark Sky Association in 2017 was "a feather in the cap" for the state of Wisconsin. She called the five-year project her baby and her legacy.

It started with measuring the light in the skies, something Bartoli still does about four times a year. Measurements are best taken late at night during a new moon, when there's not too much moisture in the atmosphere. Newport's meter readings are as dark if not darker than those at Bryce Canyon in Utah, she said.

She also needed to document educational programs to teach visitors about the importance of dark skies. Today, she leads classes and hikes at night and during the day to help people observe stars, planets and meteor showers, as well as to explain the harms of light pollution.

One example she uses: There's a viburnum bush that grows close to the light attached to the back of their office building. Even though that light is dark-sky compliant, the bush blooms in the fall as well as the spring because of mixed signals from the artificial light.

"A little bush that's getting all screwed up because of too much lighting," she said. "You can only think what it does to have lights on all the time in a big city."

Bartoli submits a report each September to the International Dark Sky Association about what the park has pulled off — any new funding secured, programming tied to arts and culture and major trends (like attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, which saw upward of a 30% increase last summer). The park can be placed on probation or taken off the dark sky places list if it doesn't meet standards.

Kickapoo Valley Reserve, which has had aspirations of a dark sky park designation for the past decade, already had much of the educational programming developed, and they've gotten feedback that the Vernon County skies are indeed dark enough to qualify.

In the past few years, those pushing for the designation have turned their attention to converting the approximately 60 light fixtures at the reserve and at Wildcat Mountain State Park to be dark-sky compliant. (There are no lights at Tunnelville Cliffs.)

It's been a detail-oriented process for Lind, who began by walking around each of the properties and identifying which kinds of lights were used where. People expect some sort of lighting when they visit state parks, he said — but it can be modified to reduce its impact on the sky.

For example, he swapped several omnidirectional bulbs out for LED bulbs with a lower color temperature. Then he painted down the sides of their lenses so the light would only point down, not out to the sides.

He's had to get creative to keep costs low. Four fixtures that light a sidewalk at Kickapoo Valley Reserve were replaced only a handful of years ago with LEDs that emit a higher color temperature, producing a blueish light that isn't dark sky-friendly. Because they cost about $1,000 apiece, Lind said, he's opted to modify instead of replace them, purchasing photographic gels that will soften the light and building shields for the top and sides.

Today, there are only six lights left to bring into compliance. They're aiming to submit their application to the International Dark Sky Association sometime this year, said John Heasley, an astronomy educator who's been assisting with meter readings and other preparation for the designation.

But it's not just the lighting on the properties themselves that has to be taken into consideration — it's surrounding municipalities and businesses, too, which give off their own glow.

Keeping dark skies dark requires a community effort

Despite the crowds that throng the Door Peninsula during the summer months, Newport State Park is hardly at the edge of a bustling metropolis. The roughly 2,400-acre park sticks out into the water about five miles from two towns whose populations barely add up to 2,000 people.

Still, Bartoli said, her readings sometimes pick up lights from Sister Bay, about 10 miles away as the crow flies. They've replaced highway streetlights that changed meter readings on the southwest corner of the park, she said.

The towns and villages that surround Kickapoo, Wildcat and Tunnelville are small, but their light domes are visible from the properties, Heasley said.

It's made communication critical about what's needed to keep dark skies dark.

The village of Ontario, for example, was working with Alliant Energy to gradually replace streetlights with LED bulbs, and took the recommendation of those working on securing the dark sky park to opt for warmer lights that point down. Mayor Mark Smith said while a few people raised concerns that making the switch wouldn't provide enough light, their concerns subsided when they saw what the lights actually looked like at night.

"You can get by with less lighting," Smith said. "Just put it where it belongs instead of putting it up into the sky."

Lind said he's sent emails to 75 different entities within a dozen miles of the parks' perimeters to ask to talk with them about their exterior lighting, including Gundersen Health System and Organic Valley, which is headquartered in La Farge. Many businesses have bright, wall-mounted lights that can be just as problematic as street lights, he said.

A combination of approximately 50 images taken over the span of about 30 minutes star trails in the night sky and fireflies at Kickapoo Valley Reserve in La Farge on Saturday, June 18, 2022. The park is attempting to be designated as an international dark sky park, only the second of such parks in Wisconsin.
A combination of approximately 50 images taken over the span of about 30 minutes star trails in the night sky and fireflies at Kickapoo Valley Reserve in La Farge on Saturday, June 18, 2022. The park is attempting to be designated as an international dark sky park, only the second of such parks in Wisconsin.

The response he's gotten so far has been positive. But to get more buy-in, he said, he has to keep things as simple and cost-effective as possible.

He's simplified International Dark Sky Association recommendations into a two-page document he hands to the people he chats with — because "they don't have 10 minutes to figure it out, they have two minutes to figure it out."

It advises using fully shielded fixtures that can focus the light down, purchasing "warm-white" LEDs and considering dimming lights, using motion sensors or turning lights off completely at night.

For some, it can be a mindset shift, pivoting away from the notion that bright lights at night keep us safer.

"People are afraid of the dark," Bartoli said, when in reality, lighting up your entire home at night may draw more attention.

The key isn't how bright the lights are, but the contrast between dark and lit areas, Lind said. In rural places, you don't need much light to draw the kind of contrast that helps people see what they need to see to keep safe.

People have been stargazing for generations, Heasley said, to track time and seasons and to tell stories. If Vernon County becomes home to a dark sky park, he said, it will encourage residents in the surrounding areas to take more pride in their starry skies and to recognize them as a resource to be protected.

"If people haven't experienced dark skies, there's no reason to care about preserving them," he said. "Once they do, they care, and they want to pass (them) down."

Bartoli, at Newport, recalled a conversation with a young boy during one of her educational programs observing the night sky. He asked her, "What's that cloud?" and she told him it was the Milky Way, thick with stars.

Hearing his astonishment, and seeing how many people are becoming newly drawn to exploring the heavens, is encouraging to her, she said. Something is making them curious — and they don't have to travel far to experience it.

Her favorite thing to tell them: "We can live each day knowing full well not even the sky is the limit."

Madeline Heim is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about environmental challenges in the Mississippi River watershed and across Wisconsin. Contact her at 920-996-7266 or mheim@gannett.com.

Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at jsonline.com/RFA.

Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.

DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Driftless Region county wants to become an international dark sky park