This Thing Called Courage

Friday, November 28, 2008

Keeping Stars in Their Eyes

BAR HARBOR, Maine - On a clear night, the Milky Way cuts across the sky and down to the horizon like a celestial lightning bolt, a giant, luminescent spear shrouded in a graceful veil of back-lighted stardust.
The sight has always been up there. But today, few Americans can see it, especially not in brightly lighted cities like Boston. On the densely populated East Coast, Mount Desert Island is one of the last inhabited places where the naked eye can still clearly observe the heavenly wonders that have inspired religion, mythology, science, and culture.
To preserve that natural spectacle - and protect one of the tourist attractions of the island's Acadia National Park - voters in Bar Harbor this month approved a "dark sky" ordinance aimed at limiting the manmade lighting that has blotted out the view of the stars over much of the country. Bright lights installed after Dec. 4 will have to be shielded from the sky to illuminate only the area beneath them.
"The idea is you put the light where you need it," said Peter Lord, who directs Island Astronomy Institute, a nonprofit organization on Mount Desert Island that studies the effect of manmade light on the night sky.
"There are many in Boston who have never seen the full specter of the Milky Way. In the United States, what you have is a generation of children who have never seen it."
Preserving the sight the ancients took for granted goes beyond saving a pretty view. The promise of a rare, unimpeded stargazing experience has the potential to draw more visitors to Maine, which depends heavily on tourism.
Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, estimates that 20 million people live within a day's drive of the Down East resort - all potential visitors, especially during an economic downturn, when many people go sightseeing closer to home.
He cites a recent National Geographic article that recommends Bar Harbor as one of the four best places in the country to see the stars.
Lord, who helped draft the ordinance, sees it as a stepping stone toward a more light-conscious society, in which understanding the correlation between the use of light and the view of the night sky becomes as widespread as people's awareness that recycling is good for the environment.
"If we are able to document the change," Lord said, "Bar Harbor will be able to encourage people to go beyond the basic minimum requirements of the ordinance."
Bar Harbor's night skies are so clear because the town sits on an island with no industry, a national park, and a large section of coastline that faces open ocean.
Three other communities on the island already enforce some restrictions on outdoor lights, but just a few miles over the bridge that connects Mount Desert Island to the mainland is Ellsworth, where signs and glaring parking lots cast a bright, yellow haze.
This is the glowing hallmark of growth - the "light pollution" that officials in Bar Harbor hope to limit. The new rules here will require all new construction projects to make sure lights brighter than a traditional incandescent 100-watt bulb have shields that prevent them from shining upward.
When the measure was first proposed, business owners worried about the cost of replacing lights until the town dropped a clause requiring them to comply within 10 years.
"There were some concerns that we were going to have some kind of light police out there," Fogg said with a laugh.
Once people understood that was not going to happen, the measure passed by a 2,270-to-568 vote.
Existing businesses won't be required to change their lighting unless they move their fixtures or add ones. Illuminated churches, flags, sporting venues, and emergency signals are exempt, as are lights for holiday celebrations.
"No one is going to run around and tell people they can't put up Christmas lights," Fogg said. "We love Santa up here."
What some see as a step toward preservation of an eons-old marvel, others see as another sign of unnecessary municipal interference in people's lives.
In particular, some residents object to a stipulation of the new rules that prevent "light trespassing" - shining a bright light into someone else's property.
"It seems intrusive," said Paul Paradis, a town councilor and hardware store owner who voted against the ordinance even though the lights and signs he installed outside his store comply with the rules.
"I hate to see ordinances that dictate you being a good neighbor, because I think people do that better on their own," he said.
"Now instead of doing that, there's the danger that if you shine a bright light on my property, I run to the town office and rat you out."
John Carter, a lobsterman who called the ordinance "stupid," said people rely on bright lights for security.
"If you don't have light on your property, someone can come and steal something, especially now," he said. "If you don't have lights and I trip and fall, I'm going to sue you."
Even critics acknowledge that talk about the ordinance has made them look at the skies in a new light.
"You take it for granted," said Paul Douglas, the owner of Mainely Meat Barbeque, which has a glaring spotlight overlooking its parking area. Douglas, who grew up in Florida, brought his love of pulled pork to Bar Harbor in 1984. "When I came to Maine," he said, "I thought, 'look at all the stars in the sky!' "
David Paine, whose blueberry pancakes are as much a staple in Bar Harbor as morning political talk in his coffee shop/restaurant, also said he had started to take note of the difference between the starry skies of home and the bright lights everywhere else.
But he voted against the ordinance and nodded sympathetically as Carter listed the issues that were more urgent to him than lighting: coming home safe from the capricious sea, making enough money selling lobster as the economy spirals.
Paine's daughter, Kelly, who co-owns the restaurant, also listened.
"I understand what they're saying: There are more important problems," she said. But recently, someone sent her a postcard from New York City. In the picture, a yellow glow enveloped the skyscrapers, and the sky above.
She thinks Bar Harbor is right to want to keep its starry sky.
"When you realize it's such an easy fix, why wouldn't we protect it?"
David Filipov can be reached at


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