How a Colorado valley became the center of the Milky Way
“We’re supposed to have night.”
Just after sunset in the tiny town of Westcliffe, 147 miles south and west of Denver, two dozen people begin gathering in the Bluff, a park on the edge of town.
The hilly Bluff overlooks the Wet Mountain Valley, and just a bit farther, the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The park hosts all manner of activities, including a large bluegrass festival every year. But on this night, its benches, set into the park’s natural hillside, are a perfect place to look out over the valley and into the night sky. The view is breathtaking. You can see ranches and grazing land dotting the valley floor miles away.
Most of those gathering are older and retired, but there are a few kids, too. At least a half dozen people are holding telescopes – the kinds that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars and take a fair amount of muscle to carry or must be rolled on carts to haul them to just the right spot.
That spot is a shed – one with wood siding that isn’t much bigger than one you might have in your back yard. But, soon, the unremarkable structure reveals itself to be tricked out far beyond expectation. When amateur astronomer Jim Bradburn flips a switch, the shed’s roof slides forward, revealing a massive telescope, complete with a large-screen TV and a computer that directs the telescope to search the sky.
Bradburn is no Johnny-come-lately night sky viewer. He’s among a growing group of locals who are serious about the stars.
On this particular night, at least at first, the sky doesn’t cooperate. It’s overcast, and clouds shroud the valley.
Bradburn and others fiddle with the observatory telescope and the computer to find an unobstructed view. Two hours in, the clouds are still veiling the stars.
Wait until about 9 or 10 p.m, someone says.
By then, chimes in another, we’ll see the stars as they were meant to be seen.
Finally, at 9:30p.m., it happens. The clouds begin to clear and the stars come out to play. The group aims their telescopes toward the heavens, capturing views of stars with names like M11 and M13, and the Great Hercules Cluster. Cassiopeia, a gleaming W in the night sky, is brilliant, even to the naked eye.
And there, behind the wisps of remaining clouds, spawls the Milky Way – a mass of stars so thick that the galaxy sometimes resembles clouds itself.
On one hand, Bradburn says, when you look into a clear night sky, you feel very small beneath so many stars. On the other, he says, it feels like you can reach up and touch the entire universe.
It’s about the altitude, and the attitude.
Westcliffe and adjoining town Silver Cliff are the crown jewels in the United States of a movement called Dark Sky. The international crusade seeks to make sure that future generations can see the Milky Way the way our ancestors did, before the advent of the light bulb. The valley west of Westcliffe/Silver Cliff is the best place to see stars for two reasons – the altitude, which at 8,000 feet, puts you closer to the stars than any other Dark Sky community in North America, and the attitude of the people on the Bluff, beholding the view.
There are 14 Dark Sky communities in the world. Westcliffe/Silver Cliff is Colorado’s only certified Dark Sky community, although the state has two Dark Sky-certified parks: Hovenweep, on the Colorado/Utah border west of Durango, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
National media have picked up on Westcliffe/Silver Cliff stargazing scene. In the past month, locals point out, crews from the New York Times, CNN, Today Show and NBC Nightly News have trekked down to the towns (total population, just over 1,100) snuggled between the Sangre de Cristo and Wet Mountain ranges in south central Colorado.
The valley just west of the two towns has something unlike most other communities in the continental United States or Canada: a clear night view of the Milky Way and billions of other stars.
Amy Moulton, who works in the local library, says it would be odd in these parts not to notice the stars at night. Fellow librarians Cathy McCarthy and Ted Ballard say they’ve never seen meteor showers such as those they see here – sometimes as many as 20 or 30 meteors in the span of just a few minutes.
“It’s a gift,” McCarthy says.
That gift didn’t come on its own. The community has taken both legal and financial steps to keep its night sky dark.
The movement in Westcliffe/Silver Cliff started about 15 years ago when a local rancher, Susan “Smokey” Jack, began to notice the night sky was changing, with more light pollution bleeding from the towns as well as from Pueblo and Colorado Springs, about 50 miles west. According to her friends in the local Dark Sky organization, she was the first to push for night-friendly lighting in the community to preserve the special view of the sky over the valley. Jack died in 2004, and the Bluff observatory is named after her.
Nowadays, a dozen years after her death, it’s increasingly difficult to see the Milky Way near any metro area. Steve Linderer, past president of the two-dozen-member local Dark Sky group, points to studies that estimate 80 percent of the population in the United States and Canada live in areas with light pollution that blocks the view of stars. A lot of kids will never see the Milky Way, Linderer laments.
“We’ve been working for 15 years to make sure [light pollution] doesn’t happen here.”
Dark Sky isn’t just another quirky Colorado phenom.
The International Dark-Sky Association – which works with lighting manufacturers, parks, city planners, lawmakers and others to implement “smart lighting choices” – was formed in 1988. According to its website, the group, based in Tucson, is the leading authority in identifying and publicizing the effects of artificial light at night on human health, wildlife and climate change.
“We’re suppose to have night,” Linderer says, citing a recent report by the American Medical Association. He notes that too much light in the nighttime interferes with the body’s production of melatonin. Sea turtles have changed their migration behavior because they head to coastal lights instead of using the shimmering seas to navigate to their traditional nesting sites. Night light has affected bird migrations, too.
As Linderer likes to put it, life evolved on Earth 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, but only since Thomas Edison came up with the incandescent light bulb has it been okay to “take away the night.” The folks in the Westcliffe/Silver Cliff Dark Sky group are striving to grab it back.
That effort has translated into “smart lighting” ordinances requiring developers to use Dark Sky-compliant lighting when they build new homes or developments in the area. It also has meant making sure outdoor lights, such as streetlamps, use more energy-efficient lighting with relatively low-wattage and low-heat bulbs. The communities make sure street lamps have covers so their light reflects toward the ground rather than in all directions. In March 2015, the town’s efforts won it Dark-Sky certification from the international association.
It hasn’t always been easy to persuade locals to get on board. At first, Bradburn says, the Dark Sky members got a little over-enthusiastic about telling people they had to change their lights to preserve the night sky. Their “light police” attitude didn’t sit well among everyone in the community, which has been the home of family ranches going back 150 years. More recently, the valley and surrounding mountains have become homes to empty-nesters and retirees from big cities, as well as both an Amish population and members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a splinter Mormon sect.
It was Jack’s idea to start raising money to change out the streetlights, and that has made all the difference. For those who haven’t been able to afford it, the homegrown group of stargazers raises money to pay for the lights and other Dark Sky-compliant fixtures.
“We need to be advocates and educators to maintain our Dark Sky heritage,” Bradburn says. “We don’t tell the neighbors to cover their lights,” but if they’re willing to change, the stargazers will make it happen. It cost the group about $10,000 to convert all the streetlights in Silver Cliff.
Bradburn notes that if you go above town, such as up to the national forest campground that’s to the west in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, you can’t see the town lights at night, but when you drive down Main Street, it’s as brightly lit as any other place.
The effort has spread outside of Westcliffe/Silver Cliff. The nearby town of Florence houses three federal prisons, whose ultra-bright perimeter lights bleaches the darkness with noxious florescence. Tom Chapman, a spokesman for the Florence prisons, says the facilities are in the process converting standard lights to LED lights that are Dark Sky-friendly, in part because those non-light polluting structures will provide better security and are more energy-efficient.
The area’s Dark Sky designation isn’t just about aesthetics. There’s an economic advantage, too.
Because of the harsh winter weather (think 24 below zero), the two towns will never be a year-round destination for astronomy lovers, but expanding the summer tourist season into the fall or late spring is definitely possible, according to folks involved with economic development in the area. Given the newness of the IDA certification, and the area’s lack of broadband capability, efforts to market the wonder of the Westcliffe/Silver Cliff night skies haven’t yet taken off.
Still, Westcliffe has grown 20 percent in the last 15 years, and many of the regulars at the Bluff are part of that recent migration.
Among the stargazers are Ed and Jacquie Stewart, who moved to the area from Austin, Texas, about 16 years ago. Ed says he has been a stargazer for 50 years, and that they were drawn to Westcliffe by the mountains and the night sky. Linderer, who retired from the National Park Service, has lived in the area for 10 years. Bradburn was an architect in Denver for about 25 years, but has lived just outside of Westcliffe for 15 years.
Charles Bogle, who heads up the Custer County Economic Development Corporation, told The Colorado Independent that city leaders anticipate people coming to see the stars in Westcliffe/Silver Cliff from all over, and hope the Dark Sky designation put the surprisingly lightly-tread Central Colorado area on the map for the more urban folks of our state. It isn’t just the skies, he says. The quality of life in the valley is also alluring.
“We figure by 2040, people won’t want to live along the I-25 corridor,” and that Westcliffe/Silver Cliff will be among the places people choose to live, he says.
There are still some skeptics about growth in Westcliffe/Silver Cliff, Bogle adds. “We still need to win over some elements of the community who are opposed to change.” The county intends to be careful about future economic development planning. Says Bogle: “We don’t want to mess it up.”
As the night grows later and the skies clearer, some on the Bluff muse about our relationship to the stars.
Susan “Sam” Frostman says seeing millions of stars makes her feel small. “But it’s like being in another world. Everywhere else, you see one star here or there.”
Linderer, who says he has been entranced by the stars since he was a boy, gazed up at the heavens. “Since the first human, we’ve been fascinated by the night sky and the Milky Way. I can’t help but think how many humans before me have looked at this.”
Photos by Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent, and courtesy of Dark Skies Inc of the Wet Mountain Valley
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