Maine has many natural resources, but a new movement is focused on one that hardly ever gets talked about. Maybe that’s because it is something that can only be seen in the dark of night.
Maine contains the largest light-pollution-free area in the eastern half of the United States. Measured on the Bortle scale (think Richter scale for astronomers) the darkest night skies in northern Maine place second on a scale of one to nine. The state’s quiet resource is a true night sky, one full of stars and planets, rather than the refracted light of civilization.
“You don’t get skies this dark – and contiguous – until you reach Kansas, or some parts of Texas,” said Andrew Bossie, the executive director of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, where the darkest skies in the state were measured last year.
Bossie is one of a group of Mainers aiming to make this asset better known to the rest of the world. Katahdin Woods and Waters is working on an application to the International Dark-Sky Association, or IDA, with the aim of protecting this resource while promoting a new kind of draw to visitors: astrotourism. You’ve heard of people booking trips to Alaska hoping to see the aurora borealis? Like that, but for stargazers who understand that the developing world is literally endangering not just the natural view from the Earth, but the well-being of humans, whose circadian rhythms require darkness, as well as nocturnal insects, birds and other creatures.
In the 21st century, nights don’t just feel brighter, they are brighter. German research released last fall and published in the journal Science Advances showed outdoor lighting increasing worldwide by 2 percent a year from 2012 to 2016. Light pollution is also a sustainability issue; a more brightly lit world is also using more energy.
But if all goes as dark sky advocates hope, several Maine wilderness areas or parks could be designated as dark sky sanctuaries, parks or reserves in coming years. The Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Acadia National Park and the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Maine Woods Initiative land holdings in the 100-Mile Wilderness area are all considering applications. Maybe even jointly.
The Milky Way shines above the ocean off the coast of Acadia National Park in the early morning hours of April 23. Staff photo by Gregory Rec
“Members of our team just started talking with the folks at Appalachian Mountain Club about possibilities of multiple or a contiguous dark sky designation here in Maine,” Bossie said.
Their combined goal would be to obtain the highest level of dark sky designation the IDA gives, an International Dark Sky Reserve. In the meantime, Katahdin Woods and Waters’ Tim Hudson, supervisor of the new monument, is beginning the application process for a less stringent designation, a Dark Sky Park.
“We’ve got something special here,” Bossie said. “And we’re eager to invite others to share in it so we can put Maine skies and stars on the map.”
John Barentine, director of conservation for the IDA, is optimistic about Maine parks achieving designations; the darkness is already there. “I really think that once the pieces start to come together this will be pretty quick,” he said.
A THREATENED HERITAGE
IDA, founded in 1988, is a nonprofit based in Arizona. The group’s mission is to preserve and protect “our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting.” In 2001, the organization established a conservation program called International Dark Sky Places.
There are nearly 100 dark sky designations worldwide. In America, most dark sky areas are in the Southwest, where low humidity, clear skies and undeveloped areas provide optimum conditions. The handful in the East include a state park in Pennsylvania. The closest to Maine is a 5,300-square-kilometer reserve, Mont-Megantic in Quebec, designated in 2007.
On May 10, Bossie and Hudson visited Mont-Megantic. Nancy Hathaway, a Surry-based advocate for dark skies, instigated and organized the trip. John Meader, director of Northern Stars Planetarium, also attended. The weather did not cooperate at Mont-Megantic, but Bossie said they had a glimpse of how dark those skies were later, back at their hotel, as well as a chance to talk to advocates who had worked to earn Mont-Megantic’s dark sky designation.
They came away undaunted, but aware of what the commitment is. “It took them years,” Bossie said. “Countless hours and lots of conversations.”
Communities around the national monument would need to be on board for a process that takes careful planning, like replacing outdoor lighting that spreads a wide beam upward with those that focus lights downward, where they’re needed. Some tweaks are counterintuitive; LED lighting is great for reducing energy use, but LED lights with a high percentage of blue increase light pollution.
It does help to be a new park with barely any infrastructure, except a road. Hudson said when Lucas St. Clair, who spearheaded the national monument project for the Quimby Family Foundation, first reached out to the association, it asked for an inventory of the lights in the area under consideration. St. Clair had it ready: six lights in the whole place. “And they didn’t believe him,” Hudson said.
Hudson worked at Yellowstone National Park for 31 years, where “you can reach out and grab the Milky Way,” but he calls the skies at Katahdin Woods and Waters “remarkable.”
Amateur astronomer Dwight Lanpher, an engineer by trade, has done light readings all over the state, and the darkest Maine sky he’s recorded was during the annual Stars Over Katahdin star party in September 2017. With a Sky Quality Meter, Lanpher recorded a 21.62 magnitude per square arcsecond. The higher the number, the more stars you’ll see. The best number Lanpher recorded at Acadia was a 21.55.
INSPIRATION and INSTRUCTION
There’s debate over exactly who deserves the credit for inventing the electric light (candidates include Thomas Alva Edison and an Englishman named Joseph Swan). Regardless, by the late 1870s, human beings began their steady march toward polluting the night skies. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, but for those who have devoted their careers to astronomy, like Shawn Laatsch, director of the Emera Astronomy Center at the University of Maine in Orono, it’s worth considering what the night sky gives us.
“It connects us culturally,” Laatsch said. “It has been used for planting and harvesting over the years. People have always used the sky, to navigate, for timekeeping. Yes, today we have all kinds of other technologies to help us with that. But all cultures around the world use the sky.”
Modernity essentially put a dimmer switch on the night sky, particularly as we used artificial light to feel safe.
“We have sort of taught our society to fear the dark, you know?” Laatsch said. As a result, “When you go to a big city, you are lucky if you can see a handful of stars.”
The Milky Way is reflected in the ocean off the coast Mount Desert Island in April. Staff photo by Gregory Rec
Bossie said Maine is often known for what it doesn’t have, like billboards or overcrowded cities. Light pollution fits that category. But as an absence it’s a more subtle kind of asset, especially for younger generations.
“We don’t know what it was like living 100 years ago, before light pollution,” said Alan Lightman, a theoretical physicist and novelist whose books include the best-selling “Einstein’s Dreams.” “We don’t really know what a dark sky is and the feeling it promotes. The wonder and the awe and the sense of something much bigger than ourselves.”
Lightman would argue in favor of the need for such a sense of proportion; his new nonfiction book, “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” released in March, is an exploration of spirituality and science, set against the backdrop of the summer home he’s owned on an island in Casco Bay for more than 30 years.
His book was inspired by a “transcendent” night where he lies in a boat feeling an overwhelming connection to the stars – “a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute.”
Looking up at a dark, unobstructed sky is a sacred experience, Lightman said, well worth protecting. “For the same reason that we honor places of religious worship, we need to have sacred places in nature that are protected.”
IN THE NIGHT MUSEUM
One can’t box up the night sky and put it in a museum. It’s also not feasible to shut off all the lights.
“That is never our goal,” said Barentine of the IDA. Instead the association focuses on measures such as encouraging people to lower the wattage of their outdoor lights. Or encouraging dark places to stay that way.
The International Dark-Sky Association requires an inventory of lights in and around the area under consideration, as well as a plan to shield them. Acadia, which is so interwoven with communities on Mount Desert Island, got a leg up from Frederick Bianchi, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. For six years Bianchi has been bringing students to the park to inventory lights and take measurements as part of an interdisciplinary program that works on community projects. There are almost 1,000 lights in the park – including in parking lots, amphitheaters and one that is just impossible to shield, the lighthouse at Bass Head. “You can’t shield that,” Bianchi said.
“One year we took 8,000 readings through the entire year,” Bianchi said.
The students have gathered the material for the application, but what happens next is uncertain. “WPI did some really amazing work and helped us get things in order for the application,” said Acadia National Park spokeswoman Christie Anastasia.
The park values its dark skies. Anastasia describes them “as much of a resource as the trees or the ecology or the soundscape.”
Places like Acadia National Park, which could soon become a dark sky park contender, defy global light pollution trends. German research published last fall in the journal Science Advances showed outdoor lighting increased worldwide by 2 percent each year from 2012 to 2016. Staff photo by Gregory Rec
There’s awareness of the resource in neighboring communities. Bar Harbor, Tremont and the town of Mount Desert have all passed lighting ordinances to protect the night skies. The Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce co-sponsors the annual Acadia Night Sky Festival (in 2017, 1,742 people attended the festival’s big event, a star party atop Cadillac Mountain).
“The park is working its way toward a Dark Sky park as opportunities arise,” Anastasia said. “When facilities need upgrading or lighting is fixed, we constantly try to see if there is a better way to make the upgrade more night sky compliant.”
Without all the communities on the island, like Southwest Harbor and Northeast Harbor, on board, would an application from a less-than-rural park like Acadia really make it through the dark sky park designation process?
Barentine says yes.
“In the case of Acadia, they are not going to be the darkest Dark Sky Park in the world, and we know that and it is fine,” he said.
But nothing will happen unless Acadia applies, and that hasn’t happened yet. “The process doesn’t really begin until I get that,” he said.
BAXTER’S GOOD DEEDS
A park also has to want an International Dark-Sky Association designation. Baxter State Park, for instance, seems like a no-brainer to earn a designation. Barentine would love to get a call from Baxter. If you study a light pollution map, from Florida to New Hampshire colors bloom in pinks and yellows, signifying areas too bright with electric light to allow any starlight to reach human eyes. Baxter, shown as gray on the map, stands as a sort of epicenter of dark, a place where the naked eye can see literally thousands of stars. There is no electricity in the park. Cabins are equipped with propane lanterns. There are some solar lights, and a few electric lights at the gates, but otherwise, pack your flashlight.
It is, as Gov. Percival Baxter envisioned when he deeded it to Mainers, a place where all natural resources of the park are protected “for their intrinsic value and for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” Baxter’s resource manager, Eben Sypitkowski, not-so-jokingly refers to this as one of a series of the governor’s “commandments.” There is no deviation from Baxter’s plan for the park, which nicely aligns with minimizing human impacts like light pollution, even with tens of thousands of campers passing through (77,780 in 2017).
“Almost every one of our policies would fall into line with maintaining dark skies and keeping light pollution at bay,” Sypitkowski said.
But entering into an agreement with another organization does not appear to be in the cards. “We have these commitments to the deeds of trust and that is where our priorities lie,” Sypitkowski said. “Anything that may conflict with it or interfere with it is not something we would want to get involved with.”
ASTROTOURISM AS ECONOMIC ENGINE
Baxter and Acadia are already well loved, Acadia to the point of experiencing record crowds. In 2016, 3.3 million people visited the national park. On the other hand, Katahdin Woods and Waters, still in its infancy, is looking to attract more visitors. Barentine knows it is a sensitive area, politically, given how some local community members fought against the concept of a national park, and how little infrastructure the monument has at this point.
But he says astrotourism presents an economic opportunity, one greater even than, say, hiking or paddling. “The nature of it being a nighttime activity is that it necessitates an overnight stay.” He said he’s seen studies suggesting astrotourism leads to three times the amount of tourist dollars. “It is one of those ‘if you build it, they will come’ situations.”
The Maine Office of Tourism hasn’t researched what kind of a draw the state’s dark skies are, tourismwise, but executive director Steve Lyons said he’d be open to doing so in the 2019 questionnaires the office uses to develop visitor profiles. “It would be easy enough for us to throw in a question, ‘Did you come to view the night sky?’ ” he said.
Maine’s lack of light pollution does present a tourist opportunity, Lyons said.
“We’d love to see some of the businesses or areas in the state promote the dark skies,” Lyons said. “We always try to get them to say, what is your differentiator?” The beauty of the night sky could be just such a differentiator, he said.
Barentine said it has been for Galloway Forest Park in Scotland, designated as a Dark Sky Park in 2009. On a visit to Scotland, Barentine said he met a pair of entrepreneurs who had moved there to give tours, complete with binoculars, telescopes and guidance through the dark. He also met a woman who had come up with a dark sky-themed consumer good he never would have expected: a Scottish tartan composed of dark blue, white and black. “She can’t make this stuff fast enough,” Barentine said. He left with a necktie.
Just a few days after the group’s last dark sky designation was made in Idaho in December, the program manager of the preserve told Barentine they’d had a call from a Chinese tour operator asking, ” ‘Where is the closest major airport? Where can we charter buses?’ The news had already reached Asia.”
Hudson, the superintendent of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, sees that potential as well, as a key part of the future for Millinocket and the other municipalities around the park. “The diversity of experience in my opinion is what is going to bring this place back,” Hudson said.