Residents of the Point Reyes area fiercely protected their land, water and air. Now they want to protect their night sky.
Mobilizing to preserve a celestial sight threatened by the Bay Area’s growing brilliance, the community has applied to become an official “International Dark Sky Preserve” — a cherished status shared by less than two dozen places on Earth.
But sinking is easier said than done, because the problem of light is everywhere: in the school that educates rural children, in the restaurants that define California cuisine, in the ranches that raise the famous beef grass-fed, in the fire station that protects against a flammable landscape.
“Dark skies are important,” said Sheryl Cahill, who plans to spend thousands of dollars installing downward-facing lights at her two restaurants, Station House Cafe and Side Street Kitchen. “But so is safety and the ability to navigate the city.”
To gaze up at the skies of West Marin is to see sights hidden from the rest of the Bay Area. If you turn your back on the glare of the 101 Freeway skyline, it’s possible to see 2,000 stars. Want to stay out all night? As the Earth rotates, the number rises to 6,000.
On a recent moonless night, the stars twinkled like scattered diamonds.
“It’s absolutely beautiful – and our entire time and place base,” local astronomer Don Jolley said at a recent stargazing event, part of the movement’s efforts to raise awareness. The crowd, wrapped in blankets in a circle of lawn chairs, stared into the inky blackness.
There is a trio of weak but perfect pairs: Talitha, Tania and Alula. The ancient Arabs described them as the three leaps of a gazelle, surprised at the waterhole by the nearby constellation Leo the Lion.
Nearby is a delicate glow, representing Cancer the Crab, the weakest of the 13 Zodiac signs. In the same neighborhood as the Red Star of Regulus and the showy Gemini Twins, it could easily be missed.
There’s the sweet spectacle of the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away and the farthest thing visible to the naked eye.
By squinting, you can make out a group of young stars dubbed the “hive.” The Old Testament says these bees swarmed from the skull of a lion slain by the warrior Samson – retold in song by the county’s own Grateful Dead.
“These newly born stars are coming to life and illuminating the remnants of gas and dust from which they were born,” Jolley told the delighted crowd. “It’s a nursery.”
This display is what makes the area such a strong candidate for official “reservation” designation, said Ashley Wilson of Arizona. International Dark Sky Association, a group that raises awareness about light pollution. A reserve must be at least 173,000 acres and is much larger than the more common “dark sky place”. The only other US site – in Idaho, which stretches from Ketchum to Stanley – required nearly two decades of work and policy decisions. Other applications are underway in Colorado and Texas.
The process is rigorous, requiring data collection, community education, and the adoption of light-limiting features, such as timers, dimmers, motion sensors, bulbs, and softer LED displays and ” warmer”, so that the light shines only where it is needed. Only about 20% of initial queries are completed, Wilson said. The West Marin effort was started by the Point Reyes Village Association, the city’s governing body, but has since been taken over by the National Park Service.
“I think there’s a really great opportunity here because Point Reyes still maintains good night sky quality and is so close to the San Francisco and Oakland metropolitan areas,” Wilson said.
The heart of the reserve would be the Point Reyes National Seashore, its spotless skies on the edge of the vast Pacific. The outskirts could include the brighter and busier Point Reyes station, Inverness, Olema, Marshall and more. Because conversations with communities have just begun, there are no boundaries yet.
For decades, population growth and development in the Bay Area have moved closer to this landscape, bringing more glare and glow. The increase in light pollution has accelerated in recent years with the widespread adoption of powerful LED lamps. The night sky has never had the protection afforded by air, land and water.
Although still an outpost, Point Reyes attracts around 2.7 million visitors a year to its trails, beaches, oyster bars, bakeries, restaurants and businesses.
This makes it difficult to banish brightness. Where to start ?
Bulb by bulb, the National Park Service measures 1,000 different locations — from its headquarters in Bear Valley and staff residences to an inn, riding center and 30 ranches — with a $3,000 portable spectrometer.
On the windswept edge of Drakes Estero, the 800-acre D. Rogers Ranch has installed modern motion-sensing lights, activated only when needed, around its historic whitewashed barns, David Evans said , fourth generation breeder.
“I support and appreciate a dark nightscape, a closer and more shared closeness to nocturnal wildlife, and the beauty of a more visible Milky Way,” said Evans, who supplies organic grass-fed beef to Marin Sun. Farms and Mindful Meats.
But in the city, the challenges are much greater. At some sites, such as a PG&E substation, there is no local control.
“Anyone, in principle, would be for such a move,” said Frank Borodic of the West Marin Chamber of Commerce and owner of Inn at Roundstone Farm in Olema. “But it’s a complex issue that would require effort and strategic planning.”
It’s expensive to replace light fixtures, he said. There are no easy substitutes for many lights. With more passengers in town, companies have security concerns. It could also be dangerous if a visitor trips and falls.
“We don’t have normal sidewalks here,” said Cahill, who was legally responsible when an elderly woman fell in her dark parking lot 16 years ago. Walking in the dark between his businesses, Cahill said, “I really don’t want to twist my ankle.”
Conservation of light in progress
Small changes are already underway. Later this year, the light clock at Point Reyes Station will stop. Some streetlights have shields. The fire station renovation will add sensors and “kill switches”. The hardware store promised an aisle to light-efficient fixtures.
But the only side of the city is bathed in light; while she put up a screen on a light, the management of the company wants to protect her ATM and her parking lot. The Marché du Palais, the only grocery store, remains bright. West Marin School, the site of several recent burglaries, turned off its brightest spotlight after 9 p.m. But for surveillance, the parking lot is always lit.
The lights also help protect the city’s public security station, a welcoming but vulnerable spot where anyone can stop for a visit, said Ben Ghisletta, captain at the fire station. The rear parking area is unfenced, leaving officers unprotected. In the event of a fire or medical emergency, rigs rush at any moment, risking hitting pedestrians they cannot see.
But darkness is a lifestyle pledge shared by more and more local residents in an ever-brighter world, County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni said. The county will write an ordinance that will adopt the initiative, he said. If passed, it could lead to future building and design codes that are more restrictive than current light-limiting rules.
“It’s just step by step. I’m pretty optimistic,” he said. “This demonstrates the West Marin Villages’ commitment to the environment and their sensitivity to the impact of our footprint.”
If successful, safe and secure, a Dark Sky Preserve designation would add another layer of protection to a place once destined to be just another suburb.
“We want everyone to see what we see,” said resident Peggy Day, who helped launch the effort. “If we get this, we can save this beautiful skyscape for all future generations.”