“Discover the night” in the Apostle Islands during International Dark Sky Week

Purple and green. northern lights viewed from Outer Island - Jon Okerstrom photo

April 15, 2023

30 miles offshore, Devils Island and Outer Island offer some incredible views of the Milky Way set in a field of innumerable stars. And if you’re very fortunate, you’ll witness the spectacular northern lights dancing in some of the darkest skies in Wisconsin. The featured photo above captures the northern lights as seen from the top of the Outer Island lighthouse. In fact, most of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore offers great night sky viewing; night sky lovers, stargazers and photographers want to protect those views for generations to come.

Milky Way over Stockton Island - Jon Okerstrom photo

Milky Way over Stockton Island – Jon Okerstrom photo – click to enlarge

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) says 83% of the world’s population lives under a light polluted sky. Just imagine how many people have never seen the Milky Way or a star-studded night sky — something we take for granted when we’re camping under the stars in the Apostle Islands.

During International Dark Sky week (April 15-22, 2023), we celebrate the dark skies we now enjoy and consider what the future may hold for the night skies over the park.

Dark Sky Week organizers say it’s a time to treasure, experience and protect dark skies where they still exist, and do what we can to reduce light pollution that can disrupt wildlife, waste energy and money, contribute to climate change and disrupt our view of the universe.

A star-filled sky over the Outer Island dock - Jon Okerstrom photo

A star-filled sky over the Outer Island dock – Jon Okerstrom photo

Wisconsin is home to just one IDA-designated Dark Sky Park. Newport State Park is a 2,373-acre wilderness-designated park at the tip of Door Peninsula on Lake Michigan. It is one of just two dark sky parks in the Midwest.

The other is Voyageurs National Park, a 218,000-acre Minnesota park just south of the Canadian border and east of International Falls.

Achieving the designation is no simple task. The IDA says “an International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.” The IDA says applicants must demonstrate robust community support for dark sky protection and document category-specific program requirements.

To achieve its status, Voyageurs partnered with the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division as well as the IDA, starting in 2019. Park Service staff surveyed all man-made lights in the park, to identify those that were non-compliant with best practices. The park retrofitted many of the lights with “night-sky-friendly” lights, with support from the  Voyageurs Conservancy. The newer lights only direct their light downward, towards the people who use them.

The park’s Phase 1 goal was to increase the number of “dark-friendly” lights from 25 percent to 68 percent, with a long-term goal of obtaining 100 percent within the next 10 years or sooner. The Park Service says “surrounding neighborhoods, businesses, and communities are not required to change their lights when Voyageurs does to become Dark Sky designated. However, there are many visual and economic benefits to using night sky friendly lights, and the park welcomes all who want to support dark skies.”

Voyageurs’ success could be a model for what’s possible for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Friends of the Apostle Islands and the National Park Service are engaged in prelimnary discussions about what it would take to achieve the designation, and about the importance of involving a wide variety of stakeholders in the effort. We hope to have more details in the months to come. With enough enthusiasm, effort and support, the sky’s the limit.

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