Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs 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.”
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.