Governor Jared Polis may have signed House Bill 22-1382 outside Westcliffe’s Smokey Jack Observatory on the afternoon of May 27, but the law’s focus is on what happens at night in the southern Colorado town—and, before long, potentially many more communities around the Centennial State. Together with neighboring Silver Cliff, Westcliffe became Colorado’s first International Dark Sky Community in 2015. The designation, from the Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), honors its commitment to limiting light pollution and protecting the nightscape.
It also draws stargazing tourists. By providing monetary support to other places pursuing IDA certification, the bill aims to both preserve “the aesthetic beauty and wonder of natural dark skies at night” and help boost rural economies. “All these little communities are trying to be creative about what could be their next reason to bring people into their beautiful places,” says state Senator Kerry Donovan, a prime sponsor of the bill, who represents western Colorado’s Senate District 5 (Chaffee, Delta, Eagle, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Lake, and Pitkin counties). “The up-and-coming appreciation for dark-sky designations was something we felt was a great fit for the state to play a role in promoting and investing in.”
The bill requires the Colorado Tourism Office to direct $35,000 to fund microgrants to entities seeking to achieve any of the IDA’s five designations. Those cover a variety of places, from municipalities (such as Westcliffe and Silver Cliff) to national parks to what it calls International Dark Sky Reserves, in which multiple land managers come together to protect the darkness of a core area.
The details of the application process for the grants have not yet been determined, but several Colorado locales are already on the path toward joining the state’s existing 15 International Dark Sky Places. Paonia is one such town that’s been closely following the bill’s progress, says IDA Colorado board chair and chapter director Aaron Watson, who lives in the Western Slope town.
Paonia’s Town Council is considering a lighting ordinance to formally limit light pollution—a key component to IDA certification. But Watson says a grant to help fund other initiatives could help build momentum. “We have to take inventory of all the publicly owned lights and see if they’re dark-sky compliant or not,” he says. “For the ones that aren’t, we need to come up with a plan to get them retrofitted. That could be a great project that this bill could provide funding for.”
The bill joins other recent wins for dark-sky advocates: Senate Bill 22-110, which passed both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly and is currently awaiting Polis’ signature, would require light-mitigating technology on new wind turbine projects, and the governor plans to, for the third time, proclaim June as Dark Sky Month in Colorado.
Both Donovan and Watson hope the results from this year’s grants will lead to the funding continuing and even growing in the future. “This is a monumental moment,” Watson says, crediting the work of IDA Colorado members past and present, who were instrumental in advocating for House Bill 22-1382. “This is taking it to the next level, and it’s because it’s a tourism promotion bill. It’s a different angle than anything regulatory. I’m hoping to see a windfall of dark-sky places come into the pipeline and get certified.”