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Starting A Local Dark Skies Group

by Ed Stewart (Dark Skies, Inc.)

Dark Skies, Inc., of the Wet Mountain Valley, in south-central Colorado, including the adjacent towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff in Custer County, was formed in 1999. In the ensuing 15 years, a long process of public education, fund raising, lobbying public officials, arranging for light shield installations, retro-fitting unshielded fixtures, developing an advertising campaign in the local newspaper, conducting a school art contest, and attending many meetings, including our own, led up to our application to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) for being certified as an International Dark Sky Community. We would like to share our journey in the hopes that it might serve as a roadmap to accomplishing the same goals for you.

First, you need to educate yourself in the many aspects of light pollution, crime vs. lighting, dark sky friendly lighting (shielded) fixture design, the economics of new technology (LED) lighting, arguments for and against, etc. There are many websites that have lots of information for these topics, here are some recommended ones:

Also search for any regional or state IDA group that can assist.

In broad terms, your biggest obstacles will be changing the mindset of the public, raising funds to retrofit unshielded fixtures, and encouraging the use of shielded, dark sky friendly fixtures in new installations. While at the same time, you should be careful not to be seen as “the light police.” The mindset is different for each of these groups:

  • General population’s concerns over safety in their residential situations,
  • Commercial businesses’ economic and legal liability concerns, and
  • City/county government officials’ economic, public safety, and electability concerns.

Each has to be approached with a different plan. Once there is some positive reaction to dark sky friendly lighting, possibly from a public presentation, then fundraising can have a chance of success. With several retrofitting projects using local locations with glaring lights to serve as a demonstration of good lighting practices, the mindset changing efforts will get a boost. Each effort can build on the other.

Developing an Effective Dark Skies Group

If you are an individual wanting to start a dark sky group, you should first approach some others with your idea to develop a core group that can work together and support each other, because the “fight” is going to require patience, a thick skin, and polite courage. Going alone will seem to others that you are just that in your views and won’t give you much credence. Once you have a strong core of individuals, then approach a reporter with the local newspaper about doing an article on your group and its purpose. Time an insert in the same edition to poll the readers on their willingness to support these purposes (see below for the two-sided insert used by Dark Skies in 2001).

Poll 1


And make use of any town or regional Facebook group page to solicit support, too. From the return responses, create a list of supporters in a spreadsheet and a Facebook friends list. If you get an encouraging response, then you might develop a limited lighting project(s) for a first fund raising effort. To the facility owner or manager, stress the economic benefits, better illumination of the area of concern, and willingness to pay part or all the retrofitting cost. Take before and after photos and use these for a follow-up article or a paid advertisement to illustrate what can be done without creating a unsafe environment. If the facility person is happy with the result, ask if they could recommend another facility, or even better, contact personally to have their lights retrofitted, too.

Just be sure to make all contacts with a positive approach stressing cost saving economics, better illumination, and willingness to assist financially. In all cases, avoid any negative labeling of current fixtures as “bad” or “polluting” as this will cause a defensive reaction or worse. If stressing the positive features of dark sky friendly fixtures gets a strong negative or hostile response, don’t argue, just politely walk away.

Which brings up the argument that bright dusk to dawn lighting prevents crime. You can’t win this argument so it’s best to point out that dark sky friendly lighting is better at illuminating outside areas than glaring, unshielded fixtures and can be done more economically (always a good selling point!). We were unfairly accused of using a “jack boot” approach to taking away the public’s property rights. We countered with statements that we only strived to educate not legislate good lighting practices. Be cautious about pushing for a lighting ordinance too soon in the process.

Dark Skies also prepared a four-page pamphlet to be included in the town and county building code packet for new home builders. It is also handed out at presentations. Easier to encourage shielded fixtures for the initial installation than retrofitting later.

Four-page pamphlet

Additional things we used to change the mindset of the general population include star parties and an art contest at the local elementary school by getting cooperation of the art teacher to have a dark sky themed competition with a small cash or gift card reward. We then used the winners’ art in several half-page color advertisements each year.


Over time, this builds dark sky awareness at the earliest age and creates a positive public image for the dark sky group. Again, don’t use negative labeling when talking to the youth as they will repeat it when they get home. Newspaper advertising is an effective program for us in constantly maintaining public awareness with 25 ads of various sizes running annually at a cost just under $2,000. Here are examples of the variety:

Star Party ad     

Two column X 4”

Two column x 6”

In dealing with commercial businesses, it’s important to personally present to the owner/manager the concepts of how shielded lighting can offer better illumination for their customers to navigate the outside areas, especially the parking lot, while at the same time reducing their power bill. If the parking lot is illuminated all night, question why they do this if the business isn’t open. The new technology LED fixtures have operating rates at 30% to 40% of traditional mercury vapor or sodium vapor fixtures with much longer bulb life, reducing maintenance significantly. Plus consider sweetening the deal with an offer to underwrite some or all of the cost of shielded and/or LED fixtures (works with governments, too). If you have the facts at hand and are well versed in the language, you can make a powerful presentation.

For electrical contractors, hardware stores, and home improvement centers, provide a vendors list for these fixtures (see If they will stock some shielded fixtures, prepare some descriptive signage to go next to it. It’s always cheaper and easier to install the right fixture first, than retrofitting later.

Additionally, contact the power company’s director of operations to see if they are offering incentives or discounts on LED fixtures for those who convert. Many power companies realize that it’s far cheaper to reduce consumption than build new power plants. Encourage them to make shielded LED yard lights (security lights) the default rather than mercury vapor ones. We use these fixture diagrams to illustrate the concept:

Diagram 1
Diagram 2

In dealing with governments, it is wise to privately approach the trustees/council persons individually to present your group’s goals to determine if they are receptive to fighting light pollution. If you determine that the majority of the panel is against your goals (claiming they want less government, less regulations, less restrictions on personal rights, etc.) then it’s not a good idea to proceed with trying to get a lighting ordinance passed. You’ll want to take the long range approach of supporting those who are running for office that are for your goals. We worked for 15 years to build a strong public support network so that the trustees/council persons knew we had that public support and that passing an ordinance would not create a negative backlash. We went from being regarded as “tree huggers” to protectors of the rural environment. For those 15 years, we would often state that we worked by public education rather than trying to use regulations. But when the rules of the IDA’s Places certification came into play, we successfully used the economic argument that it would increase tourism. So, the town councils unanimously agreed to lighting ordinances with the economic pressure from the business community and the public’s desire for dark sky preservation. I’m not suggesting that 15 years is needed in every situation, but be prepared for a long effort depending on how receptive your community is to taking the necessary steps to preserve the nightscape.

From what you’ve read, it’s obvious that a great deal of personal, positive contact with the general public, businesses, and government officials is the key to success. And expect it to take some time to win them over. If you’re lucky to be in an environmentally aware community, then the time might be much shorter.

The following are some additional things we used that might be of help in your efforts:

Above, an editorial article in support. Below, our letterhead for written correspondence.


Diagram & ad
Handout at public presentations and a newspaper insert

Poem used in the IDA certification application and in newspaper advertisements

Giving awards can be effective in building business support.


Star parties with presentations gives opportunity to educate about light pollution and night sky preservation. Always state in positive terms the advantages of new technology lighting and the cost/energy savings.

A well developed website can be invaluable. Also consider creating a Facebook page or “group” to provide timely information.


Develop a logo to “brand” all your print and online publications

Making An Application for the IDA Places

Once you’ve gotten all this groundwork in place, it’s time to get specific about becoming a Dark Sky Community by downloading the latest program guidelines (scroll to bottom of this page) from IDA’s website at:

Here’s a summary of the minimum requirements. You’ll see that the groundwork efforts will go a long way in satisfying them, making completion of the missing ones much easier to accomplish. In our case, we only lacked the updating of the lighting ordinance in one town and the passing of a new one in the other town and their commitment to retrofit their municipal lighting fixtures.

  • Community commitment shown by city-owned lighting conforming to the lighting code and publications supporting dark sky lighting.
  • Community commitment shown by dark sky awareness events, like star parties, awareness in publications and in school events.
  • Successful lighting projects, with a minimum of ten.
  • Broad support from a variety of organizations and governments, plus the public, evidenced by Letters of Support.
  • Lighting ordinance that complies with IDA’s Model Lighting Ordinance.

When the minimum requirements are at least in near completion stage, the actual compiling of the application document components can begin in earnest. We suggest that you go to: and download the applications from the successful community sites. These can be most helpful in guiding the actual layout of your application. If at all possible, designate someone who has a good working knowledge of Microsoft Word, can scan documents to efficient file sizes and dimensions, and can work with formatting PDF documents for ease of reading. This person also needs good logical organizational skills to present your efforts to best advantage. Suggest making each major part a separate Word document for ease to sharing via email proofing, and then merging the separate documents into one when ready to output the final PDF version.

Another person needs to take responsibility in contacting state and local government representatives, businesses, and organizations for Letters of Support (see below). You’ll get much better response if you provide a downloadable Word file containing a suggested support letter for them to print-out on their letterhead or to edit to their liking but not having to create all the text from scratch. This means you’ll need someone who is web-savvy to upload the file and provide the linking information. We had some success in asking that they not only download, print, and sign the letter, but to also to scan it and attach it to an email to us. The scanned image could then be easily inserted directly into the Word application file. In face-to-face contacts, having a printed out copy of the suggested letter that they can just sign can be effective in getting it done immediately rather than asking them to download, print, sign, and mail it to you. Finally, give a short deadline for submission, because if it’s too long, people will put off submitting their letter and will forget. We set a three-week deadline and it worked!

This person or another one will need to create, if not done previously, an email distribution list to solicit a Letter of Support via email from your supporters. Also make use of a newspaper advertisement and Facebook requests for Letters of Support or “Likes” indicating their support for your application. Make use of any social media that your group is comfortable with to spread the word quickly.

Sample Letter of Support

International Dark-Sky Association c/o Dark Skies, Inc.
P.O. Box ####, Westcliffe, CO 81252

To Whom It May Concern:

We are writing in support of the nomination of the adjoining Towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff as the first International Dark-Sky Community in Colorado and also the highest in altitude of any already approved. Our local group, Dark Skies, has and is working diligently to reduce the light pollution of our wonderful “nightscape” of star-filled, night skies. The protection of this valuable resource to both towns has been a 15-year journey of which both Dark Skies and the residents can be proud.

Viewing this nightscape from a dark location like these Colorado towns is a magical experience of unparalleled beauty and awe that the founding pioneers of this area had as a part of their lives. It deserves protection so that far into the future, both residents and visitors can continue to enjoy it. With certification, this “eco-tourism” can become an important part of the towns’ economic success. But the long-term protection of the nightscape is dependent on the towns’ enforcement of non-polluting, shielded exterior lighting language in their building ordinances.

Certification of the Towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff will also reduce the impact of light pollution on migrating and resident bird populations that use the moon, rising and setting sun times, and various aspects of the night sky for their instinctive behaviors. It will also reduce the negative effects on the natural circadian rhythm of land mammals, including humans, that are important for long-term health.

We are proud supporters of Dark Skies’ certification effort for the Towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff. It will reduce the impact of light pollution and we consider it a valuable example to other communities to follow this path.


Another need is for someone to photograph your successful lighting projects that clearly shows the dark sky friendly lighting fixtures. Some Photoshop skills using its tools can make the pointing out of these fixtures more obvious by using inset enlargements of the fixtures. Visit this link: for samples similar to the one below.

Inset enlargements

Be sure to inform your local newspaper to cover these successes which makes for great positive publicity and provides a forceful documentation of your projects for the application effort.

In the case of before and after photos of retrofitting unshielded fixtures, it is very difficult to capture the live effects of glare in your eyes with a photograph. It can be helpful to again use Photoshop tools to point out the difference in the light pattern, especially on walls, as to how shields direct the light downward.

And possibly the most important person is someone who is effective in dealing with the community’s government staff and elected officials to get the Letter of Support signed and the lighting ordinance passed. They may not see the priority to get these done as high your group does and the procedural steps may contain unforeseen issues that need creative solutions that only your group’s person can provide. This person needs to check often on the progress of the needed item, offer assistance, be appreciative, and follow through on anything asked of them in a timely manner. When the issue is successfully completed, give credit to the staff and officials for their efforts.

Finally, have frequent meetings and email discussions to monitor the progress of the application and to proofread the work for errors and omissions.

For more information:

Jim Bradburn, Dark Skies president
Ed Stewart, contact for Word or Photoshop originals of our publications

Our International Dark Skies Community certification application and a PDF copy of this page.

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