Photos courtesy Angela Botner Photography
For most of human history, the night sky has been inky black with sparkling stars, brilliant planets, comets, meteors, and the moon marking the months. People have stared up in awe ever since there were people.
These distant galactic companions have been part of Earth’s religions for millennia, serving as a canvas for a species in search of meaning. A star announced the birth of Jesus, a 10th-century Islamic astronomer was the first to observe galaxies outside our own, and the six-pointed Star of David is a symbol of Judaism. Buddha was born, achieved enlightenment, and died under a full moon. Dakota people believe they came from the stars, and Ojibwe believe the night sky is a mirror of Earth.
Then, in 1879, Thomas Edison produced the first commercially-viable electric light. In less than 150 years, most people on Earth lost the ability to see the stars at night.
Places where the night sky is still dark have become precious refuges. In 2001, the International Dark Sky Association started designating sites around the world where the sky still gets dark at night. There are multiple levels of darkness and protection, from cities to remote refuges.
Now, a town official and photographer in the uppermost reaches of the St. Croix River in Wisconsin is seeking recognition for the area.
Upper St. Croix skies
“A designation will establish our site as one that heralds and reveres the beauty and importance of protecting our night sky and all living things that are affected by it,” writes organizer Angela Botner.
Botner is the town chair of Solon Springs, an 85-square mile township home to fewer than a thousand residents. That sparse population works in its favor.
A Dark Sky designation for the upper St. Croix would join the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, which were recently designated. Designation requires a rigorous application process in which applicants must demonstrate robust community support and meet many other standards.
“We in northwestern Wisconsin know what an asset we have in our beautiful night sky,” Botner says. “On a clear night, in much of our area, the glowing bands of the Milky Way and an abundance of stars can be readily seen. This is becoming a rare or nonexistent experience for many people.”
Relatively little light pollution around Solon Springs means it’s an excellent place to see stars, the northern lights, and other celestial sights. As a photographer, Botner understands the allure.
Dark Sky designation could attract visitors who wish to see these beauties, since 99 percent of Americans live in areas affected by light pollution. It would also help educate residents and business-owners about night sky-friendly lighting choices. Dark Sky designation does not require any laws or regulations.
The proposal includes the St. Croix Flowage, the first 10 miles of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, and adjacent public lands of rare barrens habitat, protected for sharptail grouse and other birds. The 4,000-acre Douglas County Bird Sanctuary is beloved by bird hunters, horse riders, and nature enthusiasts. Its wide open grasslands, punctuated by clumps of brush, also provide big views of the sky.
On Monday, a Douglas County committee voted to support the Dark Sky effort. The area’s representative in the state assembly, Nick Milroy, also supports it. Botner says she has reached out to Burnett County, downstream, about extending the St. Croix designation. She has also been in contact with the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, among other groups and agencies.
Botner says the thing the effort needs right now are letters of support. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Dark nights downstream
One-hundred-and-fifty miles downstream and on the other side of the river, the village of Marine on St. Croix has also been exploring protecting its dark skies. The city created a Dark Sky Committee last year, which has already performed a survey of the town to analyze the night sky, and see what kind of lighting is in use.
“We saw a lot of great examples, where number one, people didn’t have lights on during the night, or they had shielded lighting,” committee member Mark Kraske recently told River Radio.
Kraske also reported that the group used a phone app called “Loss of the Night” to measure the night sky darkness.
“We were able to walk through the neighborhoods, point this application up at the sky, and it gave us a magnitude number,” he said. “Here in Marine, we are pretty dark.”
The analysis essentially found that about 1,000 stars were visible to the naked eye on Marine. In a place like New York City, it might be 50.
Marine is not pursuing Dark Sky designation at this time, but rather seeking to educate citizens about lighting options. They also hope to have star-watching events and other programs. The group has an informative web page on the city’s website.
Both Solon Springs and Marine on St. Croix were founded before electric light bulbs. Preserving their night skies is another form of historic and natural preservation.