This Colorado community fought to save its darkness—and all that relies on it to thrive

They found the dimmer switch.

ON HARDSCRABBLE PASS in south-central Colorado, bighorn sheep, patches of ice, and blown-over snow regularly threaten drivers on February days. But once they come out the other side and dive down into the Wet Mountain Valley, the first breathtaking glimpse of the Sangre de Cristo range comes into view. The peaks rise from nothing and seem to take up half the sky, reaching their rocky and forbidding fingers more than 14,000 feet. Near their base, the fraternal-twin towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff abut each other and log a combined population of around 1,300 people.

At the edge of the Cliffs, as they’re called, just past the bowling alley and as Main Street yields to rural openness, there’s something unusual for such a small community: a public observatory, designed to look like a weathered mining structure, with a substantial telescope inside.

On a cold-but-not-as-cold-as-it-could-be evening, Clint Smith—​Custer County attorney and president of the advocacy group Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley—stands inside readying the scope. He’s swathed in an L.L.Bean parka and a blue hat with “CLINT CLINT CLINT” knit into tidy, regular rows. The telescope’s wide tube turns on a red mount bolted to an iron pier. The instrument’s primary mirror is 14 inches wide—a much smaller aperture than those in professional models, which often exceed 80 inches across, but considered big for an amateur setup.

Smith leans over to crank open the building’s triangular roof so that both we and the telescope can see the celestial canopy overhead. But first, the computer hooked up to a large screen in front of the setup needs an update. As we wait, Smith describes local efforts to make the Wet Mountain Valley a place that preserves the view above: the inky heavens, dotted by stars, sprayed by the Milky Way. In 2015, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff jointly became the ninth place in the world—the first in Colorado—certified as an International Dark Sky Community by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit dedicated to combating inappropriate and excessive use of artificial light.

Smokey Jack Observatory, as this facility is called, brings cosmic contemplation down to Earth, demonstrating why the average person should care about the heavens getting washed out. Incautious photons can ruin the vistas—of nebulae nearby or galaxies millions of light-years away.

“Nobody had any expectation this would be a popular attraction,” says Smith, moving the telescope so it points southwest. Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley built the observatory in 2015, and the following year, the Today show did a segment on it. “The phone started ringing off the hook,” says Smith, “and it was my phone.”

The group was a leader in the attempt not just to preserve night-sky places that had always been that way—like remote areas only backpackers reach, or unpopulated deserts—but also to turn back the proverbial clock and make bright places less so, and keep them that way, without necessarily hindering development. Since 2015, the IDA has certified dozens more towns in the US and abroad that have taken steps to minimize artificial ambient light. “In the past decade, there’s been a nice uptick in awareness and activism,” says Robert Stencel, a professor of astrophysics and astronomy at the University of Denver and the Denver Astronomical Society’s representative to the IDA. Since the start of 2020, a period that has mostly been Pandemic Times, the organization has deemed 35 new spots Dark Sky places of one sort or another.

[Related: The world needs dark skies more than ever. Here’s why.]

Protecting the nighttime canopy is obviously good for astronomers, enabling them to see the dim and distant objects they study. But it might also have positive effects on ecological systems and human health. The frugal-minded find it’s a way to save on energy costs. Any of those things can convince a town to go darker. But so too can a simpler and more philosophical idea: “I want my grandkids to see the Milky Way the way I did,” says Smith, glancing over the open wall toward the space beyond.

DARK SKIES of the Wet Mountain Valley owes its existence to the late rancher Suzanne Jack. Nobody called her that, though; she was Smokey Jack. Her land looked out on the heaved earth and up at the heavens. She loved that view: so many stars you wouldn’t even bother to start counting, the glow of our galaxy arcing from horizon to horizon. She wanted those who came after her to have access to it too.

In the 1990s, Jack saw development coming for the remote valley—first an influx of new residents and then, chasing them, chain stores whose corporate HQs would install standard, sky-searing bulbs. Even without that growth, the small towns already had spillover from fixtures that shone upward. In 1998, she attended an astronomy meeting in Boulder and found out about the IDA. Soon she held a community gathering in the Cliffs.

The group of six that came together began asking residents whether they’d support a zoning law requiring shielded security lights that beamed only groundward from dusk to dawn. Slowly they made their case, amassing the contact info of interested parties. Later that year they formally organized as the nonprofit Dark Skies of the Wet Mountain Valley.

Stargazers gather around the Smokey Jack Observatory to take in 2017’s total solar eclipse. Wilson Jarvis

After that, their projects spiraled outward. Jack convinced the hospital to install shielded lights; the group raised $15,500 toward the cost of hooded streetlamps; the school’s parking-lot bulbs got metal tops. Eventually the water treatment plant, county courthouse, town grocery store, fire station, and electric, gas, and disposal companies followed suit. “That was what we did most,” says longtime member Jim Bradburn, “cover lights, cover lights, cover lights.”

Eventually Dark Skies was even able to get both towns’ trustees to pass land-use ordinances that put light mitigation on a par with air, water, noise, and odor pollution and codified ways to make fixtures nighttime-​friendly. For example, lights should be shielded, be filtered if they’re of the fluorescent or halide variety, and keep their illumination within property lines. Those seemingly small changes were enough to start to dim the skies.

JACK HAD INTRODUCED valley dwellers to the philosophy and practicality of protected skies, but she wasn’t there to see all the fruit. She passed away in 2004 from pneumonia. A plaque on one of the school’s light poles commemorates her, as does the observatory.

Bradburn, an architect who designed Denver’s iconic airport terminal, became the Dark Skies president in the years after Jack’s death. He’d grown up in Southern California in the shadow of Mount Wilson and its observatory, and he’d often taken his telescope to the top. He’d liked that he could see the moon, Venus, Saturn—but even then, light pollution had marred the field. When he moved to the Wet Mountain Valley, he decided to one-up his childhood and build his own observatory.

When he joined Dark Skies in 2004, its prospects were dimming. “Without the leader, it was kind of hard to continue,” he says. Plus, one of the members was an in-your-face guy, confrontational with locals about the changes the group sought. “I just said, ‘You know, this ain’t gonna go anywhere, because these people who live in this valley aren’t going to stand for anybody to tell them what to do,’” Bradburn says.

When he took over, he slewed in a different direction: They would educate neighbors and do that win-friends-and-influence-people thing of showing why an idea is actually good for them.

[Related: How to photograph the night sky.]

Today, when residents build a home, their welcome packet from the county includes light pollution information. Local amateur astronomers give talks at the bowling alley and host star parties, where people can look through telescopes and get tours of the heavens. There’s a Dark Skies scholarship for science-minded students, powered by donations and named after founding member Sam Frostman, who used to do educational programs with elementary school classes. The group also sponsors an art contest, in which kids paint their own vision of the nighttime sky. “The first time, they were all copies of Van Gogh’s Starry Night,” says Bradburn. Now the kids depict their valley. Home.

Thinking about the next generation can bring around the older ones—even, sometimes, the tough ranchers who’ve lived through droughts and blizzards and the continued invasion of second-homers. These longtime residents don’t tend to like the government or regulation.

They do, though, often like the stars—and they remember how the celestial sphere shone when they were kids. Passing that on can feel important. “It’s like keeping the old ranching ways. It’s their heritage,” says Frostman. “The heritage of the sky.”

Around 2014, the Cliffs decided to apply for official designation with the IDA, a move that required them to show their dedication through night-sky-focused policies and citizen support of the ideal of a dark canopy, among other criteria. Bradburn had been talking about it to everyone he could.

He’d focused on the reasoning that seemed to work best: capitalism. “I kept arguing that this was an economic thing,” he says. “Think of the dark skies as an asset, not as just something you’d like to see.” After all, people who come to stare at the stars must stay the night. And IDA’s research suggests 30 percent of all artificial light is wasted—blasted where it doesn’t need to go, when it doesn’t need to, at too high a wattage, with old bulbs. With improved outdoor fixtures, electric-bill payers could cut costs by 60–70 percent.

Eventually the group convinced enough skeptics that they weren’t the enemy but instead part of the town, with its interests in mind. With that, in 2015, the Cliffs became an International Dark Sky Community.

That same year, they built the observatory with donated funds, labor, and materials, placing Bradburn’s telescope inside. It collects around 3,000 times as much light as the unaided eye. That changes the view from the field considerably: Through the scope, you can see the details of Jupiter’s clouds, the gaps in Saturn’s rings, the colors in nebulae, double stars that look like a single one before you step to the eyepiece, and galaxies millions of light-years beyond ours.

While a professional observatory would show even more stunning shots, those aren’t typically open to the public on a Saturday night. Smokey Jack’s star parties have since proven so popular that this past year, the group built pedestals and power outlets outside for others to attach their scopes to, and an amphitheater to display the images streaming into the big instrument’s eyepiece on a screen. People have started coming to starlit towns from all over the world, spurring a spike in tourism in Colorado’s rural communities.

[Related: Yes, you can see rainbows at night, too.]

Inside the observatory this February, though the sky is beset by clouds, it’s easy to see why the crowds come calling. From here, only the mountains hamper the view, and they’re allowed. With the roof rolled back, standing halfway inside and halfway out, you feel both part of the human Earth and part of the vastly bigger space above and beyond.

Smith pulls up images of his favorite celestial objects—the ET Cluster, the Coat Hanger Cluster—​and talks about how long their light takes to reach us (around 8,000 years for the former, and more than 2,000 years for the stars making up the latter), the sheer number of them in our galaxy (between 100 and 500 billion), and the tally of galaxies in the universe (perhaps 200 billion). It forces him, even as someone who’s the county attorney, to put day-to-day struggles and politics in perspective. “All the stars and the planets, it’s all matter, and matter is never destroyed,” Smith says. “Once our sun is gone, our atoms will still exist. Maybe we were already part of some other lifetime.”

WHEN SMITH and the rest of the Cliffs crew wanted to secure their sky status, they turned to the organization with the official stamp—the IDA—and employees like John Barentine, the IDA’s director of public policy. Barentine trained as an astronomer, and when he joined the group in 2013, he mostly thought of light pollution as something that disrupted those celestial studies. “It just did not register with me that it had these other effects that a broader swath of society might care about,” he says. But he began to get his education right quick—starting with his job interview for a program manager position.

The conversation was unconventional, beginning with the question, “Can you come to Florida for a week?” At the time, the IDA was working with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to make beach lights safer for sea turtles. Once they emerge from their eggs, hatchlings must scurry toward the sea to survive. If the shore is brightly lit, they sometimes venture inland instead. Soon, Barentine himself was on the beach, wearing an orange safety vest and carrying a clipboard. “Peering through binoculars at lights on people’s houses and hopefully not getting shot at by any of them,” he quips. Just a couple of years ago, the group finished helping Florida retrofit fixtures at oceanfront houses, using settlement money from the 2010 BP oil spill.

The IDA, like astronomers, quantifies light pollution by measuring how bright the sky’s background is—its magnitude—on a logarithmic scale. The details can become pedantic, but the gist is that a tally of 17.8 represents a typical big city, where you can see a few hundred stars and the canopy is gray. At around 19, you can begin to pick out the Milky Way. At about 20, the Milky Way beams down but gets washed out near the horizon. A bit above 21, you can see not just the Milky Way but the differential in its sheen, with dimmer lanes and brighter swaths. The Cliffs hovered around 21.4 in 2020.

A group of astrophotographers set up to shoot a nearly unblemished sky in Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley. Michael Pach

Since Barentine came aboard, he’s learned why dark skies matter to people beyond those with big telescopes. Too much light pollution can alter predator-prey relationships, since hunters rely on illumination but prey need the shadows. Frogs and toads that croak nocturnally to find mates can find their flirtation disrupted by two-car-garage floodlights. And birds that use the moon and stars to navigate can get thrown off by bulbs and travel in the wrong direction, or at the wrong time. One research group examined migrating birds’ responses to the twin beams that shine upward during New York City’s annual September 11 memorial. Their study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2017, ran over seven years and estimated that the installation influenced more than 1 million birds, which gathered around the spotlights in densities 20 times higher than normal, slowed down, flew in circles, and “vocalized frequently.” When the two shafts were gone the next night, the off behaviors disappeared.

Most concerning to Barentine are the insects, whose notable decline—40 percent of all species worldwide are on the downslope—seems to be influenced by light pollution. This is especially true of the pollinating bugs that keep much of the ecosphere, not to mention agriculture, in balance. For example, a 2017 Nature article describes a project in which researchers placed mobile streetlamps in seven of 14 meadows in Switzerland. In the lit spots, insects visited plants 62 percent less often.

Barentine says excess brightness is “not the dominant pressure as far as we can tell,” but it does seem to have some effect. That’s important, because reducing any stressor helps. Conservationists have started to pay more attention to light pollution as something more straightforward to control than oil companies.

Stray light matters to humans too. Our circadian rhythms run on day-night cycles. Brightness during slumber can cut down on the body’s production of melatonin, a chemical that helps you nod off. Preliminary work, like a study published in JAMA in 2013, suggests that chronically suppressed levels correlate with an increased risk of cancer and diabetes.

In the real world, it’s hard to tease out cause and effect in light-pollution research. But the data gathering is increasing, helped in part by a program called Globe at Night, a project at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab that lets citizen-scientists upload brightness measurements to assemble a map of conditions. As of 2020, people in 180 countries had produced more than 200,000 samples, which scientists and the public can use to find correlations between changes in light and things like wildlife behavior.

[Related: What you can do to reduce light pollution.]

Just as you don’t have to raze all factories to keep air and water pollution under control, you don’t have to totally avoid development to see more darkness overhead. To become a Dark Sky Community like the Cliffs, towns must have outdoor lighting ordinances, education efforts, and support from officials. And because one cannot press “undo” on big cities, there are Urban Night Sky Places for locales much brighter than the Cliffs that have signed on to best mitigation practices. These lure back the night by installing lights only where they’re needed, turning them on only when they’re useful, making them no stronger than necessary, and using the appropriate energy-efficient bulbs.

There are other designations for places with fewer people. Your favorite gazing spot could become a Dark Sky Park, like Bryce Canyon in Utah, or a Dark Sky Reserve, like Aoraki Mackenzie in New Zealand. If it’s vantablack, the location might become an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, like the !Ae!Hai Kalahari Heritage Park in South Africa. So far, 130 places have one of those designations, and 29 others have earned the community title.

Tonight at the Smokey Jack Observatory, the stars are steadfastly hiding behind clouds. Defeated, Smith begins closing up. But once the weather warms, the site will start taking reservations for private parties and then—pandemic willing—begin its public gatherings again. In April 2021, the group will install a new Planet Walk, a scale model of the solar system that pedestrians can follow through both towns, past Pluto and toward the cosmic wilderness. Maybe they’ll think about the billions of light-years beyond, the gravity of far-off objects tugging ever so slightly on their sleeves. It’s a literal concrete commitment to celestial matters.

Barentine acknowledges things don’t always go as well as they did in the Cliffs. “Everybody is drawn into two camps on every issue now, no matter how mundane it is,” says Barentine. “We are finding in certain places there is a very knee-jerk negative response. And it isn’t about dark skies.”

Over the past quarantined year, more people did seem to care about dark skies, stuck, as they were, at home. “Some of them stepped outside onto their balcony or into their backyard, and really, for the first time, looked up at the night sky,” says Barentine. “And the reaction in some cases was, ‘Where are the stars?’”

This story originally ran in the Spring 2021 Calm issue of PopSci. Read more PopSci+ stories.

Sarah Scoles Avatar

Sarah Scoles

Contributing Editor

Sarah Scoles is a freelance science journalist and regular Popular Science contributor, who’s been writing for the publication since 2014. She covers the ways that science and technology interact with societal, corporate, and national security interests. The author of the books Making Contact, They Are Already Here, Astronomical Mindfulness, and the forthcoming Mass Defect, she lives in Denver and escapes to the mountains to search for abandoned mines and ghost towns as often as she can.