The International Dark-Sky Association connects people to the stars through designated dark sky places and education

Imagine going your entire life without seeing the Milky Way, or maybe you have yet to see it. That’s what the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is working to change. One-third of the world’s population cannot view the Milky Way from their homes, but in recent years the increase of designated dark sky places — including both towns and parks — is giving people the opportunity to experience the cosmos. 

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Certified Dark Sky Parks are an excellent way to experience the Milky Way and the night sky.Terrance Siemon
What is the International Dark-Sky Association?

The IDA’s mission is simple: to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting. As of August 2019, the IDA has certified more than 120 International Dark Sky Places across six different continents.

“I think it’s kind of like a spiritual experience to be under a dark sky, and I think providing that experience to people around the world is something that we’re sorely missing,” explained Bettymaya Foott, Director of Engagement for the IDA. “Many people don’t have that experience.”

While the IDA’s efforts are gaining recognition, many people still don’t know about the IDA and Dark Sky Places. 

“The fact is that 90% of people don’t know what dark skies are, even though (the IDA) has been around since 1988,” said Ryan Parker, chairman of the IDA Colorado Chapter.

Protecting the night sky is an issue that does not get enough recognition, but light pollution affects several aspects of life. Light pollution is disruptive to wildlife and ecosystems, is harmful to human health and increases energy consumption, to name a few. These are the issues that the IDA is working to resolve.

“Dark skies influence so much of our environment,” explained Adam Dalton, International Dark Sky Places program manager.

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Desert View Watchtower in Grand Canyon National Park offers spectacular views from the rim, both during the day and at night.Terrance Siemon
The International Dark Sky Places Program

Founded in 2001, the International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) Program recognizes areas around the world that have worked to protect dark skies through practical lighting techniques while educating the public about the importance of dark skies. 

There are currently six different certifications in the IDSP Program: 

  • International Dark Sky Communities: Organized cities and towns 
  • International Dark Sky Parks: Protected areas such as national parks and monuments 
  • International Dark Sky Reserves: An area consisting of multiple land ownership, where land managers have worked together to improve the natural nighttime environment.
  • International Dark Sky Sanctuaries: The most remote places in the world that possess little to no threats to its dark sky quality while also having protections in place for scientific, educational, natural or cultural value. 
  • Urban Night Sky Places (UNSP): Urban areas that promote dark skies within an area of significant artificial lighting that cannot qualify for other designations, but are worth recognizing for their efforts. 
  • Dark Sky Friendly Developments of Distinction: Subdivisions, unincorporated neighborhoods and townships that do not meet the requirements of the International Dark Sky Community, but deserve recognition for their efforts.
The Importance of the Certification

There are several reasons for parks and communities to consider applying for an IDSP certification. 

First, the certification helps places to reduce light pollution.

“What’s really encouraging is that it’s the only pollution that goes away at the speed of light,” Dalton said. “Other (forms of) pollution can take decades to reduce.”

Second, proper lighting strategies benefit the entire community — from your neighbor to the wildlife inhabiting the same area. 

“We become more mindful of the environment and that everything is connected and that what we do affects ecosystems and also affects humanity,” explained Aubrey Larsen, acting coordinator for the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative.

It’s important to understand that a dark sky does not mean a dark ground, but rather that a community adopts fully sustainable and community-friendly lighting standards. 

Parker likes to use television host Mister Rogers as an example on how we ought to live.

“My platform is ‘good neighbor living through responsible lighting,’” Parker said. “And part of that is not only just living with humans, but living with nature.”

And third, specific locations could also benefit potentially from astrotourism, a form of tourism that uses dark skies to improve the economy through stargazing programs and events.

“It’s a way (communities) can have sustainable tourism in more remote places that have been economically disadvantaged or have been hit by a boom-and-bust economy,” Dalton said.

The best part is that through improvements made to nighttime skies in order to receive the certification, towns and communities are able to use the resources at hand — the stars and the night sky — to generate revenue.

“Westcliffe and Silvercliffe brought in over one million dollars in additional revenue last year because of astro- and eco-tourism,” Parker said.

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Canyonlands National Park is one of several designated Dark Sky Parks in Southeast Utah.Terrance Siemon
What’s Next

While many individuals still don’t know about the IDA and its work, recognition of the IDSP Program is on the rise. 

“Even in the last three to four years we’ve seen a dramatic increase in awareness of the issue as well as an interest in the designation side,” Dalton said.

While 20 certifications were handed out in 2018, 20 have already been awarded this year — with four months to go.

“At any given time, I usually have over 200 active applications,” Dalton said.

As the applications continue to pour in, the IDA is beginning to see new places receiving dark sky certifications. For the first time ever Croatia, Taiwan and South Africa are receiving recognition for their efforts in protecting dark skies.

“We’re seeing new places with a diverse, worldwide geography applying, and successfully applying for the program, so that’s something that’s also inspiring,” Dalton said.

What You Can Do

If you are interested in helping the International Dark-Sky Association and their dark sky initiatives, there are several ways you can get involved.

The easiest way to contribute is to donate to the IDA. 

You can also get involved with a state IDA chapter. If your state does not currently have a chapter, consider starting one.

Any little act helps. Reconsider the way you use lighting in everyday life, talk to your friends, family and neighbors about dark skies and spread the word in your community or simply visit an IDA-certified Dark Sky Park and attend one of their dark sky programs.

Finally, you can help a park or community get certified.

“Help with the application process for a community, park or even spearhead a park or community where you live or within your area,” Dalton said.