Minnesota has a wealth of parks. Local, regional, state and national parks. Federal wilderness. Scientific and natural areas. A wild and scenic river.
But it doesn’t have a park in the sky.
It may be time to close that gap. The results would be good for tourism and the human spirit. Experience elsewhere suggests that.
On a recent trip to Michigan, I talked to Tom Bailey, the longtime executive director of the Little Traverse Conservancy, who’s part of a team that engineered the creation of the sixth certified International Dark Sky Park in the U.S. and ninth in the world. Dubbed the Headlands and located in the far northwestern tip of the state’s Lower Peninsula near Petoskey, the 600-acre park is attracting attention and nighttime visitors – some of them traveling great distances to scan the panorama of stars that in much of the U.S. is eclipsed by artificial lighting. According to Tom, on a recent fall weekend, a number of visitors were Minnesotans.
It’s no wonder people will make such a long trek. Most backcountry campers know the awe that comes from sitting and sleeping under a sky awash in too many stars to count. A glimpse of the Milky Way alone can convulse you in a mysterious joy. And the absence of that experience is robbing millions of something that connects us to creation and eternity.
In other words, light pollution is a problem worth fighting.
Certified by the Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association, a dark sky park is defined as “a park or other public land possessing exceptional starry skies and natural nocturnal habitat where light pollution is mitigated and natural darkness is valuable as an important educational, cultural, scenic, and natural resource.”
A benefit of the park is that it protects the natural values of undeveloped or lightly-developed land. Although modern technologies make it easier to reduce skyward light diffusion from buildings and roads (while saving energy), one of the best insurance policies for dark sky park conservation is the absence of structures and roads. Michigan’s Headlands Park is protected by a conservation easement restricting development.
The Park enjoys the support of the government of Emmet County, which harbors the Headlands. The County sponsors popular night viewing and educational programs.
The State of Michigan also backed the park with a law designating 21,000 acres of state forest and park land in the area as a dark sky preserve.
As Tom wrote in a newsletter, a renewal of the sense of wonder may be the most important result. “In the age of computers, smart phones, HDTV and an expression called ‘screen time’ to define the hours we spend before electronic devices, it’s good to know that people are working to protect the view of the night sky so that it is possible to head outside, look up, and experience the primal wonder of the vastness of the heavens. No telescope required. No electrical outlet or device. Just one’s self, perhaps a companion or family, and the beauty and wonder of the Ultimate Wilderness, the night sky above us.”
There are plenty of locations in Minnesota as yet immune to the kind of light pollution that blots out the stars, locations that should be protected. Prairie, forest, and water.
Is anyone out there interested in creating Minnesota’s first certified International Dark Sky Park?