TRAVERSE CITY — Stargazers delight in dark skies at night.
That's why some work to protect the night sky from light pollution, the same way others strive to protect resources such as clean air, water and land. A 600-acre Emmet County park on Lake Michigan is now one of only six places in the country to be designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association, said Beth Anne Piehl, the county's communications and Web development director.
The designation honors places committed to light control and public education about dark skies. A free open house to celebrate the achievement begins at 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 21, the first day of summer, at the park located just west of Mackinaw City.
"It will blow your mind," Piehl said, of the park's night view. "It's spectacular."
Mary Stewart Adams, of Harbor Springs, is the park's new program director. She and other supporters worked for years to earn the dark sky designation and raise awareness about the "negative consequences of light pollution."
"(It's) very important for me that there are places ... to have an encounter with the dark, with the night sky," she said.
The park is largely undeveloped, save for several structures including two houses the county rents out for wedding parties and other gatherings. The land has a thick, old-growth forest, hiking trails and is a key spot for migrating birds. Outdoor lights on the buildings were retrofitted to meet the dark sky standards.
Residents and municipalities, too, can do their part to preserve dark skies.
"You can just go outside at night and take a look at your own house," Adams said.
Northwestern Michigan College astronomy professor Jerry Dobek said a dark sky "doesn't mean lights out." Instead, homeowners should make sure lights are projected on the ground, not sideways or upwards where it doesn't do any good and where lights can create an unsafe glare, Dobek said. Shield light sources by installing full, cut-off light fixtures. Some yard lights without shields can be seen miles away, Dobek said. Motion sensors are good security devices because they alert the homeowner or neighbors when movement is detected on the property, without requiring a light to be constantly on.
Dobek contends it's safer for businesses to turn off parking lot lights at night, thus eliminating dark shadows where people can hide. He was among a group of people who in 1988 helped found the International Dark-Sky Association, based in Tucson, Ariz. The effort began as an attempt to preserve dark skies around observatories, he said.
More people are recognizing light pollution as a real threat, and Dobek has worked on lighting ordinances for dozens of municipalities throughout Michigan.
"We've just begun to make an impact. It's an educational impact," he said.
Traverse City gives short mention to lighting requirements in its site plan approval process for developments. City Planner Russ Soyring said rules state that exterior light sources should reflect downward. Another ordinance states signs can't be lit between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. if the business is closed.
The planning commission is discussing a natural resource element to the city's master plan which, if approved, could lead to a discussion about more specific lighting standards, Soyring said. The natural resource plan mentions among its objectives lighting curfews, setting maximum levels of illumination for neighborhoods, and requiring height and shield lighting standards.
Meanwhile, Emmet County officials hope the new dark sky designation will spur greater awareness of the night sky. The park is open 24 hours a day to the public for stargazing, hiking and other outdoor recreation. The momentum gained from the association's designation in May could lead to bigger attractions for the property, such as a nature center, community conference facility or an observatory.
"We are hoping the sky is the limit, if we can come up with some good plans," Piehl said.