The World's 11 Certified Dark Sky Reserves, Where the Stars Run Riot

Silhouette of person on rock

Pexels / Public Domain 

Idaho is working hard to create an official Dark Sky Reserve, which would make it the first in the US and the 12th in the world.

Update, January 2018: They did it! The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) announced the accreditation of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, making it the first in the United States and now one of 12 such reserves worldwide. Congratulations!

The Milky Way – that flood of stars splashed across the inky night sky ... and the galaxy we call home – has been a source of wonder ever since humanity has had the capacity to muse about such things. It has served as a source of inspiration for ancient Egyptians and enlightenment scientists, modern artists and poets, and everyone in-between. And we’ve squandered it away, made it disappear; we're depriving generations of people from ever knowing its profound beauty.

Thanks to our incessant obsession with artificial light, we have ruined the nighttime sky. More than 80 percent of the planet's land areas – and 99 percent of the population of the United States and Europe – “live under skies so blotted with man-made light that the Milky Way has become virtually invisible,” writes National Geographic.

It is an enormous loss of nature; yet it’s one that brings, perhaps, the least distress to me. Restoring ruined nature is a generally a daunting concept, but restoring the night sky is easy: Just turn off the lights.

Preserving the Night Sky

Which is where The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) comes into play. IDA is the star-loving non-profit founded in 1988 that is dedicated to protecting the night skies for present and future generations. They grant certification for dark sky parks, reserves, and sanctuaries.

There are currently 37 official dark sky parks in the United States, 53 in the world. There are only 11 dark sky reserves – which have a larger size requirement than parks – and none of them are in the U.S.

But if the state of Idaho gets its way, the U.S. will have one in a matter of months. The state has applied to become the first-ever dark sky reserve in the U.S., the 12th in the world. The designation would be awarded to a stretch of land about 300 miles southeast of Boise – 1,400 square miles of Blaine County, Custer County, and surrounding areas.

IDA describes a reserve as such:

An IDA International Dark Sky Reserve is a public or private land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment. Reserves consist of a core area meeting minimum criteria for sky quality and natural darkness, and a peripheral area that supports dark sky preservation in the core. Reserves are formed through a partnership of multiple land managers who have recognized the value of the natural nighttime environment through regulations and long-term planning.

Becoming an International Dark Sky Reserve

To be eligible, public or a private land must be comprised of at least 700 square kilometers (435 miles), accessible to the public in part or whole; legally protected for scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment purposes. IDA notes that the core area must provide “an exceptional dark sky resource, relative to the communities and cities that surround it, where the night sky brightness is routinely equal to or darker than 20 magnitudes per square arc second.”

The 11 Certified IDA Dark Sky Reserves that Idaho would join are:

  • Aoraki Mackenzie (New Zealand)
  • Brecon Beacons National Park (Wales)
  • Exmoor National Park (England)
  • Kerry Dark Sky Reserve (Ireland)
  • Mont-Mégantic (Québec)
  • Moore's Reserve (South Downs, England)
  • NamibRand Nature Reserve (Namibia)
  • Pic du Midi (France)
  • Rhön (Germany)
  • Snowdonia National Park (Wales)
  • Westhavelland (Germany)

Idaho's Fit Amongst the Stars

Idaho seems pretty excited about the prospect. Cities have enacted dark sky ordinances, which means residents need to install shields on exterior light fixtures and restrict holiday lighting for businesses after hours, among other measures. Already, places in the area play home to night skies so pristine that interstellar dust clouds can be seen in the Milky Way. So why not make it official? In addition to returning the night sky to its formerly awe-inspiring splendor, dark sky efforts reduce energy consumption, help animals that suffer from light pollution, and lure astro-tourists to their beautifully dark environs.

According to the AP, leaders from Idaho cities Ketchum, Sun Valley, and the town of Stanley, along with other local and federal officials and a conservation group, have been working for several years on the application for the reserve disgnation. Due in November, the decision should be granted within 10 weeks.

It's heartening to recognize the work going into restoring the nighttime sky. While we have done much to destroy darkness, thank heavens the stars our literally out of man’s reach. We can wreck our view of them, but they’ll always be there ... just waiting for us to turn off the lights, tilt our heads back, and ponder the wonders of a sky running riot with stars.