The Milky Way over Mount Pisgah

Milky Way over Mt. Pisgah and Wildcat Mountain Overlook by Dave Delap

Driftless Dark Skies Guest blog by Dave Krier

I came to the concept of dark skies early. Back in the mid-1970s my parents had bought a farm, and as an 11-year-old I came to love astronomy and spacecraft. I subscribed to Astronomy magazine and reveled in its unbelievable images of distant planets and nebulae. I watched for the first color images from the Viking lander on Mars (it was really colored red!). Skylab, Star Wars, the Space Shuttle (with an astronaut from Viroqua), and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on TV…if it was space and airplanes, I loved it.

Then, for Christmas in 1977, my parents bought me an Edmunds Astrocan 2001 telescope, back when 2001 was still far enough off and exotic enough to have a telescope named after it. It was a great entry-level telescope that looked almost like a short, red, stout thermometer. It had a big ‘bulb’ at the bottom that was perfect for holding in my lap while I’d curl over it and look at the heavens.

The Milky Way over Wildcat Mountain.As we were on a farm, the visibility to the sky was very good. Not great, because like every farm we had a huge, white, mercury vapor light in the barn yard that came on every night when the sun set. Initially I’d go off behind the barn or somewhere out of sight of the light, but some of the light still spilled around the buildings and into the sky, and behind the barn wasn’t nice and mowed but more pasture and thistle, so not very conducive to learning the night sky.
Unbelievably, even to my 12-year-old self, my parents had a friend who was an electrician who came out and put an on/off switch on our light pole. I’ve seen him over the years, and it was so unusual that even 40 years later he mentions it with a chuckle. When I would go out to watch stars, I would turn off the light with the big new industrial switch, and my ability to see the planets and Milky Way and distant objects increased by orders of magnitude. When I was done, an hour or two later, I’d flip the switch back on, and light would return and the night sky faded a bit. By the way, check with your utility before you do this at your home!

Now, 50 years later, there’s a name for this concept: Dark Skies. In its most formal version, the International Dark-Sky Association will certify that a location meets all sorts of criteria for having dark skies. There are only 200 sites in the world, and 18 in the United States, and in Wisconsin we have one (Newport State Park in Door County). But right here in our own backyard, The Kickapoo Valley Reserve, Wildcat Mountain State Park, and the Mississippi Valley Conservancy have joined forces and applied for International Dark-sky Park status to become only the second one in the state!

The application requires a sky quality survey, a lighting management plan, community partners, and education and outreach. There has been a lot of volunteer work put in to apply for the designation, and they hope to hear soon on their official approval. One big advocate of dark skies is retired Richland Center English teacher John Heasley–many of you may know him from his Facebook site Driftless Stargazing, which is a great resource to keep track of what’s happening in our local night skies.

Even the nearby small town of Lone Rock, Wisconsin, is getting in on the action. Last year they passed a Comprehensive Plan with a section about Dark Skies. It’s not entirely altruistic–Dark Sky tourism is turning into big business, as people seek out places where they can see the unobscured night sky (and rent rooms and buy things and eat while they’re here). The state of Montana’s 2023 tourism TV-ad campaign is called the Montana Trail to the Skies, and the entire TV ad talks about how well you can see the starry sky in Montana.

In the case of Lone Rock, it isn’t ‘big government overreach’ as much as a nudge to development opportunities to keep dark skies in mind. Their Plan calls out for ‘future development to take into account the protection of dark skies.’ It’s not very onerous, and just encourages people and developers to consider lighting in their lives and development plans, so that everybody can have a better life.

Less formally, if someone were just ‘leaning in’ to the dark skies concept, there’s really just five ideas. Everybody can implement these ideas, with no permissions or approvals, and make a huge improvement in your environment and save money at the same time. Here they are:

One: Only put outdoor lights where they’re needed.
Two: Direct lights downward to where they’re needed.
Three: Lights should be no brighter than necessary.
Four: Put lights on a timer and motion sensor so they are only on when needed
Five: Use a yellower, or warmer, color rather than bright white.

There are many advantages to this approach.

First, it’s good for people, animals, birds, insects, plants and bats–pretty much everybody and everything. A study in Biological Conservation shows that excess lighting affects how insects hunt and mate, and makes them more vulnerable to predators. Mayflies can be confused by light bouncing off asphalt and will lay their eggs in the street instead of a stream. Ask any fly fisher, and they’ll affirm that mayfly populations seem to be down on our streams. Fishing is a billion-dollar industry in the Driftless Area according to Trout Unlimited, so if we can help mayflies, it’ll help our economy in addition to the insects.

We’ve all seen insects swirling around lights–about 1/3 of those insects will be dead in the morning, as they fly until exhausted, or they become prey for night predators. Insects are critical to birds and bats, so if insects decline due to our lighting, it’s bad for birds and bats, too.

Birds can be directly affected by lighting. Over 200 species of birds migrate over North America at night, and light attracts and disorients them. Scientific American reports that birds living in areas of high light pollution nest about a month earlier than usual, upsetting the delicate timing of birds fledging and food availability. They also fly towards lights and can hit buildings or towers.

Putting light where you want it and directing it towards the ground is also more useful. When you drive up to a building and the light is glaring in your eyes and not lighting up the ground, you shield your eyes or look away to not be blinded. That light is not functional or useful, and may even be dangerous.

We all want to be safe, and we believe that if we turn on lights outside at night, we will be safer. Unfortunately, many studies have shown that there is not a clear association of lighting to crime reduction. The National Institute of Justice has ‘very little confidence that improved lighting prevents crime.’ In fact, illuminating streets may actually increase violent crime by making victims and property easier to see. The US Department of Justice has studies which showed an increase in crime in Chicago alleys that were better illuminated. A New Orleans study concluded that ‘there is no evidence that street lighting affected the commission of any of the targeted crimes.’ This is also part of the reason that ‘barnyard lights’ aren’t called ‘safety lights’ anymore!

Are people impacted by lighting? You bet. On your iPad, TV or smartphone, there is a ‘blue light filter.’ This is a filter which turns the display slightly redder than normal, reducing the amount of blue light emitted. Why is that? Because study after study has shown that exposure to blue light (which many outdoor LED lights have) is harmful to humans. Apple wouldn’t do it if it didn’t contribute to profits, so this isn’t a far-fetched, hippy concept. The reality is that the brighter, bluer light has been shown to cause vision problems such as macular degeneration, cataracts, eye cancer and sleep problems due to circadian rhythm disruption. That path leads to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, sleep disorders and cognitive dysfunctions, according to UC Davis.

Perhaps the best reason to pursue Dark Skies is it saves money–using less energy is less expensive. Every photon of light that is going up into the sky isn’t illuminating anything, but someone is paying for it and creating pollution to generate the power for it. In some ways, LED lighting is causing part of the problem. LEDs are so inexpensive to operate and purchase now, the lights that so many folks purchase as safety lights to put in their yards are incredibly bright and undirected, so they illuminate the sky indiscriminately. In the old days, there would be a 150-watt flood light that at least would cost something to run, so folks would watch how much they were on.

In 2017 there were about 2,000 farms in Vernon County Wisconsin. The power companies have been actively converting many of those traditional mercury vapor ‘barnyard lights’ to LEDs. When you fly over rural land at night, it is a grid of hundreds of white pinpoints as far as you can see. LED lights can be made in multiple colors, including the more beneficial yellower colors, and they use about 75% less electricity for the same illumination. At the Wisconsin average of 0.18 cents/kwH, the cost to run a 175W mercury vapor farmyard light for 4300 hours a year of darkness is $155/year. An LED would be about $38, saving about $120/year. In Vernon County alone that’s keeping $240,000/year in the pockets of hard-working farmers! And by switching to a warmer color and shielding those lights, it’s fantastic for dark skies, and human, animal and insect life.

It’s estimated that 80% of Americans have never seen the Milky Way. Thinking back to my early days on the farm and how inspirational it was to see the night sky, I’m hopeful that with a Dark Skies approach, more people will be motivated to see the night sky.

What can you do to help with Dark Skies?

  • Save money and switch to LEDs!
  • Follow the recommendations of the Dark Skies program. My unwritten rule: If you are squinting at all at a light, there’s improvements to be made.
  • Let your county, city, village, town and park boards know how important good lighting is to you. Much of the work has already been done for elected officials so they don’t have to come up with brand new ordinances, and can be found at in their policy-makers section.

Starry skies await you this fall at the future Kickapoo Valley Dark Sky Park
September 16. 75th Anniversary Bash. Wildcat Mountain State Park
October 7. Evening Sky Prairie Walk. Tunnelville Cliffs Preserve
October 28. Hunter’s Moon Hike and Stargazing. Wildcat Mountain State Park
You can listen to Maggie Jones of WDRT reading this essay at

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