California

Its night skies are celebrated worldwide. California town marks 10 years as stargazers’ delight

Protect the night sky.

The words are mantra in Southern California’s Borrego Springs, a short drive but a world away from the Southland’s sprawling urban glow, the desert town’s dedication to the dark rewarded each night when the sun goes down.

“It’s just so beautiful. The summers are very hot here, but summer and winter can be a beautiful time. You look up and it’s astonishing when you look up and see the Milky Way,“ said Betsy Knaack, who chairs the Borrego Springs Dark Sky Coalition, the local group dedicated to preserving the town’s nighttime views. “It’s one of the best things I love about living here. You can see the stars reflected in the pool at night. It is so dark and clear and sparkling. It’s such a beautiful sight.”

July marks 10 years since Borrego Springs was designated a Dark Sky Community by the International Dark-Sky Association, so named for the clarity of its night sky and for its efforts to combine lighting policy and education to combat light pollution.

Borrego Springs is in select company. The town of about 3,000, 90 miles northeast of San Diego, is one of only 22 communities worldwide awarded the designation by the Tucson-based organization. The town remains the only community in California to hold the honor.

For 10 years, Knaack and the coalition have worked to preserve and protect the night sky over their desert home, educating residents and business owners about using less invasive lighting, gaining support from county and utility officials while bringing other nearby communities into the fold.

“We started with mailers, brochures. We explained (to homeowners) about good lighting, how you don’t want old-fashioned floodlights. Light trespass – the light that shines into other people’s yards. It’s the type of work we’ve done for 10 years,” Knaack said.

And the work is part of a much larger movement championed by the International Dark-Sky Association to preserve starry night views from pervasive light pollution. The nonprofit has recognized more than 100 IDSPs, or International Dark Sky Places, across the globe since its 2001 founding.

Those include three neighboring parks. Death Valley National Park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which surrounds Borrego Springs, and Joshua Tree National Park join the list of designated international dark sky parks. The 31 public and private parks worldwide “implement good outdoor lighting and provide dark sky programs for visitors,” according to the association.

“Tourism is a main industry for Borrego and dark skies are a main element of that tourism. Sky viewing, sky photography, from professionals to families who want to make sure their children have seen the Milky Way,” Knaack said. “We have filmmakers, international tourism; people who are interested in dark skies as a movement. They ask, ‘How can we learn from you?’”

Borrego Springs is also blessed with what Knaack calls “good geography” for sky watching. Borrego sits smack in the middle of Anza-Borrego, the largest of California’s desert state parks at nearly 600,000 acres.

“We’re surrounded by Anza-Borrego State Park. We’re the doughnut hole in the middle of this park. There are millions of people in all directions, but we have high mountain ranges to the north and west and that blocks light from coming into the area,” Knaack said.

That relative isolation so close to San Diego and Los Angeles – two cities that have worked to minimize the effects of “sky glow” light pollution in the past decade – also offers urbanites the opportunity to view an unobstructed night sky.

“To have a community so close to such large urban centers and accessible to so many people within a relatively short drive is something that is unique and serves as a place where urban residents can connect to the night sky,” Adam Dalton, the association’s Dark Sky Places program manager, told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

And during a week when the world marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, a view of the stars above takes on added meaning, Knaack said.

“It’s moving, it’s emotional. People have written about the anthropological connection between man and the stars. It’s a deep psychological connection,” she said. “There’s a perspective you don’t get in any other place – our insignificance. That perspective – it’s very important.”

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.
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