Dark sky at night, astronomer's delight

PENFIELD — Let there be light. But not excessive amounts of light. And let it be focused downward where it can do some  good and not harm wildlife and a view of the heavens.

So say representatives of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District who are seeking a Dark Sky designation for Middle Fork Forest Preserve near Penfield.

The district has already taken steps to reduce the amount of light streaming upward and plans to take more action in that regard.

Most people think little about the amount of light streaming toward the sky. But not only does it greatly reduce the ability to see the stars in larger cities, it also is harmful to wildlife, especially birds.

Speaking last week to the Rantoul Exchange Club, Bill Ford, a member of the forest preserve district’s citizens advisory committee, said birds travel a lot at night.

“They depend on the constellations for their migratory path. This artificial lighting has an effect on these birds,” Ford said.

Every year, an estimated 8.9 million-1 billion birds are killed on their migratory paths due to artificial lighting, which throws them off-kilter, according to Ford.

He said when sea turtles lay their eggs on the shoreline, the hatchlings typically see the shimmer of the moon glistening off the ocean and know to head in that direction. But in areas of high artificial light, they can become disoriented and head in the wrong direction.

“If they don’t figure it out by morning, they become prey for some other animal,” Ford said. “We’re losing a lot of baby turtles that way.”

Fellow citizens advisory group member Eileen Borgia said the International Dark Sky Association has taken the excess light seriously.

“Their goal is all over the world to reduce the light pollution,” Borgia said.

Middle Fork Forest Preserve has been a destination for starwatchers for several years. They know it’s a safe place with not a lot of light.

Parkland College Planetarium Director David Leake of the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society said the C-U group presents a couple of star parties and family nights at Middle Fork every year.

He said the number of visits  might increase with the light-reduction efforts at forest preserve.

Leake helped to write the dark sky designation application for Middle Fork. If granted, Middle Fork would be the first public site in Illinois to receive the designation.

“I think it’s very strong,” Leake said of the bid. “One thing I’m worried about is that most of their parks are big parks. This will become one of the smaller units (if approved).”

Given that Central Illinois has no “massive parks around here,” perhaps the association will look more favorably upon the forest preserve district’s application.

Ford said the Dark Sky Association has a six-page list of requirements for the designation.

Middle Fork Superintendent Matt Kuntz said in preparing for the bid, one of the first things the district did was to create a lightscape management plan for the 1,700-acre preserve.

Kuntz said he learned more about lighting than he ever thought he would — information about wattage, kelvins and lumens.

While visiting a St. Louis zoo, he checked out the lights, not the animals.

Kuntz said developing the plan was fairly simple because the preserve doesn’t “have a lot of lights anyway.”

But lighting is a necessity in some areas.

“I have a campground that’s open 24/7. You have to have lights for safety/security. People are roaming the streets of the campground at all hours of the night. I’m not going to sacrifice any more lighting.”

But the type of lighting could be changed. And it was.

Kuntz and crew replaced the “ghastly globe lights” that are 1980s-era, which he said shine light “up into space” rather than where necessary on the ground.

They were replaced with high-efficiency LED lights that are focused down.

Two-thirds of the lighting has been replaced. The rest will be done later.

“It’s more contemporary. It’s more efficient,” Kuntz said.

The Middle Fork superintendent said he was hesitant to replace the lighting on his garage, which is on-site at Middle Fork. But he didn’t realize how inefficient the old-style lighting was.

“But once you install the lights, you really learn how it gets rid of that shadow effect,” Kuntz said.

Ford said the dark-sky movement is growing.

In Paris, all commercial lighting must be shut off at midnight or one hour after the last employee leaves a business.

In Pittsburgh, a one-hour blackout is observed, and 40,000 lights are being replaced with dark-sky lights. New York City is replacing 200,000 lights.

dhinton@rantoulpress.com

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