When the great earth, abandoning day, rolls up the deeps of the heavens and the universe, a new door opens for the human spirit, and there are few so clownish that some awareness of the mystery of being does not touch them as they gaze. For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars – pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time. Fugitive though the instant be, the spirit of man is, during it, ennobled by a genuine moment of emotional dignity, and poetry makes its own both the human spirit and experience.
– Henry Beston, The Outermost House (1928)
No trip to Arizona is complete without a night spent gazing up at the wide expansive, star-flooded, desert sky. This type of experience is a nostalgic one for those who star-gazed as children, naming constellations, counting shooting stars, and wondering what was up in that great big sky. And lucky for Arizonans and those who visit the Grand Canyon state, this type of interaction with the night sky is still available across most of the state’s desert landscape. This is not only thanks to the vast acres of pristine parkland and undeveloped desert covering much of Arizona, but also due of the efforts of number of cities around the state who have made great strides to celebrate and protect the state’s dark sky heritage.
While many cities in Arizona (and around the world) have made impressive commitments to preserving the dark sky, few have achieved the success of the city of Flagstaff. Rooted in astronomy, the night sky has long been an important resource for the city’s residents. The area is home to several observatories, including the Lowell Observatory, established in 1894, the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station, which opened in 1955, as well as the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer, located just 15 miles south of the city. As a result of the presence of this thriving research community, light pollution has been long been a concern in the region.
The city of Flagstaff took its first major steps towards light pollution control in 1958 with a lighting ordinance prohibiting the use of certain commercial searchlights. In the years since, the city’s lighting ordinances have evolved and expanded into a robust set of guidelines and rules designed to minimize the use of excess lighting. It is thanks to community groups like the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition, which was founded in 1999 with the mission “to celebrate, promote, and protect the glorious dark skies of Flagstaff and northern Arizona” that the city has been so successful in developing their lighting policy.
In 2001, Flagstaff became the world’s first “International Dark-Sky Community” a designation awarded by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). The designation, now held by nine cities around the world, signifies a community with “exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky through the implementation and enforcement of quality lighting codes, dark sky education, and citizen support of dark skies.”
Those qualifying as an “International Dark-Sky Community”, must meet several minimum requirements set by the IDA, including a quality comprehensive lighting code, community commitment to dark skies and quality lighting, broad support for dark skies from a wide range of community organizations, community commitment to dark skies and education, and success in light pollution control. The IDA has continuously recognized Flagstaff for going above and beyond these requirements and for serving as a leader amongst cities aiming to curb urban light pollution.
Every year this success is celebrated at the city’s annual Lights Out Flagstaff event, a two-day celebration in which homes, businesses, and public buildings turn off non-essential lights to show their commitment to responsible energy consumption and to celebrate Flagstaff’s night sky heritage. Local community groups provide astronomy programs for residents and the local Lowell Observatory offers free public viewing events. The educational events serve as an important supplement to city-mandated lighting ordinances, helping to inform the Flagstaff community about the value of their dark sky.References: Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition (flagstaffdarkskies.org) International Dark Sky Association (dark sky.org) Flagstaff City Outdoor Lighting Standards (http://www.flagstaff.az.gov/