By Steve Hubrecht

In the past two centuries, humans have managed to affect, alter and otherwise leave their imprint on just about every nook and cranny of the planet. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it seems the heavens are destined to be next. The increasing impact of light pollution, particularly in the past few decades, has changed the night sky for many people around the world. The change has been so profound that in multiple large cities around the world, residents can’t even see the black firmament above, much less the stars.

Luckily the Columbia Valley, at the moment, has relatively modest light pollution (even by the standards of small, rural communities) and consequently, provides some spectacular nocturnal vistas. Edgewater resident, Tim MacIntosh, is trying to keep it that way, seeking to establish a dark sky reserve in the valley and in fact, right across the East Kootenay.

Dark sky reserves are protected areas which are noted for particular starry skies, and make specific efforts to cut back or eliminate light pollution and otherwise protect those celestial views. The first one was set up in Michigan in 1993. The first permanent night sky preserve of any sort in Canada was established in Ontario’s Torrance Barrens in 1999. In 2001 the International Dark Sky Association began accepting applications to certify dark sky places, categorized as either dark sky reserves, dark sky parks, dark sky sanctuaries or dark sky communities.

The idea has exploded in popularity in recent years. In 2010 there were just 10 certified dark sky places across on the globe. By 2019 there were 100. By January 2022, there were nearly 200. 

MacIntosh, who is well known to many residents through his work as a carpenter and as a member of local band Blitzen Coast, wants to add one more to the list, right here. He is creating the nonprofit Kootenay StarDome foundation to coordinate efforts to that end. He envisions the reserve at first stretching from Spillimacheen in the north, to Fairmont Hot Springs in the south and eastward to encompass Kootenay National Park. It would grow from there and eventually cover much of the East Kootenay region.

A dark sky reserve involves many different aspects aside from just dimming the lights and having nice views, and benefits for wildlife, ecology, human health and public safety, explained MacIntosh.

“The idea is not to have zero lighting, but to have better designed lighting,” he told the Pioneer.

MacIntosh has been reaching out to local governments, local First Nations, Parks Canada and BC Hydro, trying to build a case for these entities to put dark sky friendly policy in place.

He pointed out that Kootenay National Park, Invermere and Radium have all separately made some steps (some small and some fairly significant) in the right direction.

“We do have fairly good light readings here,” said MacIntosh. “A lot of this is about protecting what we have, making sure it doesn’t get worse.”

Kootenay National Park, for instance, has already adopted international dark sky reserve standards for any new lighting in the park, he outlined, and added municipalities have the power to likewise make sure any new developments within their boundaries comply with dark skies ideas.

“Hopefully, if we get some policy behind the issue, we can push it forward,” said MacIntosh.

He noted that there is potentially an economic benefit for the valley — possibly quite a large one — since dark sky tourism is booming.

The Columbia valley is a great place for dark sky tourism, since it can get up to 16 hours of darkness in the winter, and its star-studded skies are framed by dramatic peaks.

“You don’t have to been an astronomer, or even an amateur sky gazer, to go out into your backyard and be amazed by a star-filled night sky. It can be a deep and powerful experience,” said MacIntosh. “People are already coming to the valley as tourists for a wilderness experience. Having a dark sky reserve can add to that. There are a lot of opportunities.”

MacIntosh has lived in the valley for 20 years, and is raising his kids here. They are partly the reason he has begun his dark sky efforts.

“Having two young teenagers has inspired me to get involved in conservation issues,” he said. “Having a dark sky reserve is a conservation issue that is quite interesting to me, because it is largely achievable. We just have to be cognizant of what we are doing as a town and as a region. We should be able to make a difference.”