Long before Percival Lowell decided Northern Arizona’s dark skies were worth his infusion of Eastern investment dollars, the region’s star-filled, Milky Way-laden clear evenings awed gazers, be they Native peoples, Spanish conquistadors, or pioneer settlers. When larger settlements rose, awareness of natural resources including the valuable nighttime opaqueness gained momentum, led by the region’s world-class professional observatories, Lowell Observatory and the U.S. Naval Observatory, Flagstaff Station (NOFS). In 2001, Flagstaff received the very distinguished title of world’s first international dark sky city from the Tucson-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a non-profit organization that “advocates for the protection of the nighttime environment and dark night skies.”
In August, Sedona also received the coveted title, meaning two of the now eight cited cities are in our little parcel of the American West. For businesses, organizations and governments, it is an honored reminder of just how special Arizona’s sky conditions are and what that means to the local bottom line.
There is no more pertinent issue than a city enacting and committing to stringent outdoor lighting restrictions in the IDA’s decision-making process. When Flagstaff introduced stricter restrictions in 1989, Sedona closely followed, building on existing local support for environmental preservation.
“Arizona is now the first state in the union to have two Dark Sky Communities. With Flagstaff and Sedona being so close together, and already being tourist destinations, the new designation for Sedona will add to their visibility and attract new visitors to the region,” said Scott Kardel, acting IDA executive director.
As part of the designation process, Kardel says the City of Sedona brought City Hall into full compliance with the code, provided resources for lighting retrofit projects such as the one carried out at Posse Grounds Park, and in 2012-13, provided matching funds to encourage business and commercial property owners to voluntarily bring their grandfathered outdoor light fixtures into compliance with the ordinance. And earlier this year, the city approved further protections that expanded the use of adaptive controls and light curfews for city-owned lighting, according to the IDA. While there are skeptics among the business community, as there are in every city where such efforts have been undertaken, Kardel adds that proper lighting saves money and that Sedona’s ordinances are nothing new.
Even so, the official IDA designation came not a minute too soon for many. “The longer a community waits to achieve a Dark Sky compliance or registration, the harder it becomes. More and more improperly shielded lights will be installed. With the Dark Sky designation, this will insure that future buildings and lights will be of the shielded type, correct color temperature type and help protect the darkness,” said JD Maddy, president of the Astronomers of the Verde Valley, a group of amateur and retired astronomers. “We have had fairly dark skies here in the Verde Valley for quite some time. This helps protect that.”
Central to the designation efforts for decades now is Keep Sedona Beautiful (KSB). “It’s very important to keep Sedona’s skies dark so future generations can enjoy the views of the heavens,” said Joanne Kendrick, chair of KSB’s dark-sky committee. “KSB will continue to reduce light pollution so that Sedona can continue to live up to the expectations of an International Dark-Sky Community.”
While very excited by Sedona’s designation, one of the architects of Flagstaff’s lighting codes and IDA designation efforts cautions that obstacles still lie ahead. “The challenge will remain. The pressure for increased lighting will remain relentless and the effort to protect night skies requires constant vigilance. For example, the recent industry efforts to change to white LED lighting must be weighed carefully against the dramatically increased impacts white light has on light pollution. We all hope that as the industry moves towards LED lighting, an increased awareness of the environmental impacts will lead to the development of more night-friendly LED lighting that can meet energy as well as dark-sky needs,” said Chris Luginbuhl of NOFS, a foremost expert in lighting and light pollution.
The region’s other major astronomical research institution is even more interested in Sedona’s designation. With its $53 million cutting-edge Discovery Channel Telescope perched on the Mogollon Rim east/northeast of the Verde Valley, Lowell Observatory is staying closely engaged with area localities and their efforts to curb light pollution.
“IDA Dark Sky Community designation signifies a substantial and community-wide commitment to preserving the night sky. Sedona’s joining Flagstaff as a Dark Sky Community shows that dark sky preservation is a widely held regional value in Northern Arizona, and I’m glad to see the IDA’s acknowledgement of Sedona’s efforts,” said Jeff Hall, Ph.D., Lowell’s director.
For Jennifer Wesselhoff, president/CEO of the Sedona Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Bureau, Film Office & Sedona Marathon Event, the city’s “brand manager,” the designation is another tool in her arsenal. “As the destination marketing organization for Sedona, we are always looking for new ‘products’ to promote. While we’ve been promoting Sedona’s dark, starry skies for many years, the IDA designation lends credibility to that effort. We are very proud to be named as the world’s eighth international dark sky community,” said Wesselhoff.
Area dark sky activities for the general public include Astronomers of the Verde Valley viewing events like those held at Red Rock State Park, outings with tour operator Sedona Stargazing, and Sunday evening stargazing at Page Springs Cellars.
“We are seeing increasing evidence that ‘dark sky tourism’ is growing in popularity,” said Kardel. “Both [Flagstaff and Sedona] are well poised to take advantage of this.” The designation also helps differentiate Sedona from other western destinations it closely competes with for tourist dollars, like Napa Valley and Santa Fe, notes Kendrick.
For the tourism and astronomy sectors, dark skies are among Northern Arizona’s valuable commodities, broadened by Sedona’s recent efforts for night-sky preservation. Percival Lowell might have been wrong about seeing artificial canals on the surface of Mars, but he certainly was not wrong about setting up telescopes in the neighborhood.
Tom Vitron is a freelance media consultant based in Sedona. He has served as the communication manager at Lowell Observatory, on the faculty of NAU’s School of Communication, and is now a contributing Friend of Lowell and works for Page Springs Cellars winery, where he sells fine Arizona wines and runs Sunday stargazing nights.
By Tom Vitron