Rob Douglas: Where’s Sparky when we need him?


Rob Douglas

Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at

Find more columns by Douglas here.

— The first thought that ran through my mind when I learned of Steamboat Ski Area’s plan to install lights for night skiing was, “Where’s Sparky when we need him?”

Do you remember Sparky?

In a May 2008 column, “Sparky uncloaks the stars,” Sparky was the name I gave to the “terminally unlucky masked intruder” who broke into Yampa Valley Electric Association’s Mount Werner substation one Sunday night. While clumsily trespassing, Sparky triggered a spectacular explosion that caused a power outage across most of Steamboat Springs. In a split second, most of the valley went dark, and the resplendent beauty of the night sky was fully revealed in all its wonder and glory.

Yes, Sparky was a raccoon.

Try as they might to convince us otherwise, the plan by ski area officials to light 1,000 vertical feet of ski terrain will diminish the beauty of the night sky landscape at Mount Werner — a night sky landscape that contributes mightily to the natural beauty of Steamboat that thousands of residents and visitors enjoy, especially in the winter when the stars seem brighter in the crisp, subfreezing air.

Coincidental to the ski area’s announced plan to install lights for night skiing, I stumbled across “Let There be Night” at The Atlantic magazine website. The article is an interview of Paul Bogard concerning his new book, “The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light.”

As The Atlantic puts it, “Bogard aims to draw attention to the naturally dark night as a landscape in its own right — a separate, incredibly valuable environmental condition that we overlook and destroy at our own peril.”

As part of the interview, Bogard discusses the Bortle scale, which was created by John Bortle in order to measure the darkness of the night sky on a scale of one to nine, with one being the darkest.

According to Bogard:

“People think they know darkness, and that they experience darkness every day, but they don’t, really … I think John Bortle’s point, when he created this tool for measuring the darkness of skies, was that we have no idea what darkness really is. We think night is dark — full stop, end of story. But, on the Bortle scale, cities would be a Class 9 – the brightest. Most of us spend our nights in what he would call a 5 at best, or more likely a 6 or 7. We rarely, if ever, get any darker than that.”

While Steamboat is not a 6 or 7 on the Bortle scale — defined as a suburban/urban transition sky — the city already has lost enough of the night sky to fall outside of the rural (3) category and come fairly close to the suburban (5) category. In other words, we’re already at the midpoint between a truly dark night sky and the brightness of an inner city.

How the city handles the ski area’s plan to install lights from Christie Peak to the base area will provide some indication of whether city officials consider the night sky an environmental landscape worthy of protection in keeping with the Earth Hour proclamation the Steamboat Springs City Council issued last March.

The proclamation — in conjunction with a city sponsored Earth Hour celebration that included extinguishing street, government and business lights along Lincoln Avenue for one hour — was supposed to “encourage businesses, individuals, and governments to take actions to reduce their impact on the environment in their daily lives and operations.”

However, the first sentence of the proclamation — before all the grand environmental speak — states Earth Hour is just a “symbolic event.” So the council signed the proclamation with the understanding that it was an inconsequential, politically correct gesture designed to curry favor with environmentalists.

Now that Steamboat Ski Area officials want to light up parts of Mount Werner, we may find out whether local environmentalists were also just going through the motions for Earth Hour or whether they believe the night sky is, as Bogard calls it, an “incredibly valuable environmental condition that we overlook and destroy at our own peril.”

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Cresean Sterne 3 years, 8 months ago

I am for the night skiing..Once it gets dark in town, most things left to do require you to be over 21 years old..This opens a huge door for kids and families not to mention a few more jobs.. I do value our night sky as well so I understand why you feel the way you do Rob. I am sure that there will be plenty of people who will agree with you and not like this idea.. Maybe we could adopt the style of lighting that Boulder County adopted by allowing only seascape style lighting that face down and do not reflect light up..It doesnt sound like much but those kind of lights work quite well in lighting an area without polluting the night sky so heavily with it..JMO..


mark hartless 3 years, 8 months ago

The lights don't have to face up. Snow reflects light.


christopher dreher 3 years, 8 months ago

Bring on the lights! i live right next to the hill and thats why i moved here; to ski. i dont see anyone complaining about the late night baseball games at the tennis complex/howelson park for the past 3 weeks! If you want dark Oak Creek is only a 25 minute drive away!


mark hartless 3 years, 8 months ago

Forget it Rob.

They are only environmentalists SECOND.

Anything THEY want comes above it and is excused; anything OTHERS want is "pollution", be it light pollution, noise pollution, air pollution, groundwater pollution, ridge-lining of buildings, etc, etc...


Scott Wedel 3 years, 8 months ago

City does have rules on light pollution. But they'll never apply them to the ski area. Just as they don't apply them to the ball fields.

I would be surprised if night skiing is much of a success. Seems to me that it works as a draw for inexpensive ski areas that include it on the day lift ticket as something for teenagers to do for the family on a budget.

BTW, if you want to rant at local environmentalists then consider the Green Machine program. Which is designed to offer a veneer of recycling, but to control costs does not accept cardboard and still spend most of their time being full. Because they are single stream then their recycling material has to be hauled to Denver to be processed. Which makes the Green Machine program too expensive if they were to be emptied as they fill.

The alternative would be dual stream recycling and use the recycling facility at the far closer Eagle County landfill, but local environmentalists say Routt County residents are too stupid to do dual stream.

If you figure in all of the energy used to haul local recyclables to Denver then a true environmentalist could show that it is better for the planet to throw most recyclables into the garbage for local disposal at the local landfill.


mark hartless 3 years, 8 months ago

Careful Scott. Your negativity could dampen recycling efforts and cause irreversible harm to our planet AND our sense of self-worth.


Doug Starkey 3 years, 7 months ago

I think Rob's objection with night skiing might have to do with his Tree Haus home and excellent view of the night skiing area, rather than overall concerns with the environment and the Bortle scale. Might have been a nice disclaimer in this column, "Hey, I'm directly impacted by those lights. However, I'm really concerned with lip service to the environment, not the impact in my backyard.".

Nice thing about those lights, when the switch is off the impact on the Bortle scale will be off as well. We aren't talking about a permanent and lasting impact, just 12 or so hours a week during the ski season.


mark hartless 3 years, 7 months ago

Those lights will disrupt the mating and foraging habits and habitat of subnivean creatures and thus are a direct threat to all life on this planet.

It just so happens that it is precisely DURING that ski season that critical mating of these subnivean creatures occurs. They are also very vulnerable this time of year due to the extreme cold and the added stress of foraging for scarce food. Also, I think lighting up the snow will help the coyotes find them, which is also sad and dispicable on the part of selfish skiers...

And if you think that's all a load of crap you are right, but you've actually heard that crap from someone with a straight face... and much much more if you are a snowmoblier.


Ben Tiffany 3 years, 7 months ago

Good job,Mark! You've managed to bring snowmobiles,your favorite subject,back into the discussion. Let's give that one a rest and we can do battle again next winter,shall we?


mark hartless 3 years, 7 months ago

Hey Ben,

I could have used the timber industry, coal-fired power plants, oil drilling, or any number of other similar activities to show the same thing...

that when it comes to the environment a lot of folks talk a good game when they can put the burdens elsewhere, but when it comes to things THEY want, like night skiing or a huge lodge on a Mt top, they somehow can just overlook many of those same issues that seem so important to them when other peoples desires are in the crosshairs.


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