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Dark skies become important asset for Westcliffe and Silver Clif - KOAA.com | Continuous News | Colorado Springs and Pueblo

Dark skies become important asset for Westcliffe and Silver Cliff

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A view of the Milky Way from Main Street in Westcliffe A view of the Milky Way from Main Street in Westcliffe
WESTCLIFFE -  The small Colorado towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff are gaining international attention for their nighttime view.

In March, the International Dark-Sky Association designated the two as a combined International Dark Sky Community. It is only the 9th community in the world to receive the title.

"We are just a hair off of what a natural sky should be in the middle of nowhere," says local Dark Skies board member Ed Stewart.
The Westcliffe-based group has finally fulfilled the dream of founder Smokey Jack, who started Dark Skies 15 years ago. "I don't even know if she had a telescope," says current secretary and treasurer Sam Frostman, "but she had this idea that she was so enthralled with being able to see everything in the night sky that she wanted to keep it that way."

Dark Skies president Jim Bradburn, a retired architect, designed his own backyard observatory on the outskirts of Westcliffe. With the help of a high-tech telescope and unimpeded views, he is able to capture photos of all types of astronomical phenomena like other galaxies, nebulae and supernovas. "My favorite things are galaxies," he says. "I like to see things that are a long, long ways away, some as many as 40 million light years."
The path to Dark Sky designation was not always easy for the group. Not everyone in town was keen on the idea of change at first. Frostman says, "A lot of people thought we were the light police, so we saw a big drop in the number of people who were originally interested because they didn't want their name associated with Dark Skies."

"Initially people are not going to react positively when you tell them they're doing something, say, not the best, to put it politely," adds Stewart. "But to tell them, here's a better way, and especially if you bring in the aspect of, it'll save you money."

One by one, Dark Skies members got their neighbors to start installing light hoods, effectively keeping the artificial light aiming downwards without losing any illumination on the ground. "When they turn on a light outside that isn't covered and shielded, 60% of the light is wasted," notes Bradburn.

After 15 years, they got Westcliffe's board of trustees to approve an ordinance enforcing hooded lights throughout the town. By the time the Dark Skies group was applying for the international title, people were sending letters of support from all over.

Stewart, who put together the application, says, "It apparently made an impression with International Dark Skies because they look for, one of the key things is community support. Can you keep this going?"

Now members are working to build a public observatory attracting tourists to see the view for themselves. They have also engaged the next generation with their mission. Each year, kids in Westcliffe look forward to a dark sky art contest, where they compete for monetary prizes while also learning the importance of the nighttime view.

Frostman says, "Earth's not always going to be the only place where human habitation is, so if you want to know what's going on, you have to be able to see where you're going."

To learn more about the Dark Sky community of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, click here.

To learn more about the International Dark-Sky Association, click here.

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