Preserving the Dark Skies of the Maine Woods
AMC’s Maine Woods holds a unique role in the preservation of night sky—nestled within a more secluded part of northern Maine, it’s in the heart of one of few remaining dark skies in the Eastern United States.
“A dark sky is one where artificial light doesn’t interfere with the view of the natural starry environment. Very few locations on Earth still have naturally dark skies; most are polluted to one degree or another,” explains Doug Arion, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Carthage College and Director of Mountains of Stars with AMC.
AMC’s Maine Woods property is now an official International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) Park, the first in New England. This status helps protect the nearly 75,000 acres from light pollution and attract astronomy lovers from around the world.
The IDA started its International Dark Sky Places program in 2001 as a way to soften light pollution in remote areas. Any viable communities, parks, or preservation areas, public or private, can apply for one of six designation tiers, all which come with a number of requirements that would mitigate excessive use of artificial light and educate the public about the importance of dark skies.
“There’s different designations to elevate the importance of dark skies on the flora and fauna of a region, plus benefits to human health,” explains Jenny Ward, AMC Maine business and community relations manager. “What’s intriguing about [a Dark Sky designation] is that when you take away the light pollution, the natural resource you’re trying to conserve is immediately there. Some conservation projects take years to show results, but this is immediate.”
Preserving the night sky has proven benefits to the environment, improving wildlife habitats and reducing the deaths of migrating birds.
“More than 1 billion birds die each year migrating, most because they either get drawn into the lights of cities or lose their ability to navigate and go off course,” says Arion.
The list goes on. Arion says that insect pollination—critical for life dependent on the plants, including our food sources—decreases as much as 62 percent in light-polluted areas. Light pollution affects humans as well. Sleeping in light-polluted environments can result in reduced production of natural melatonin—a primary cancer-fighting chemical in the body—and poor sleep which can lead to higher rates of obesity and diabetes.
Preserving dark skies also helps surrounding communities by saving homeowners money on electric bills, reducing glare, and opening the door to establish an astro-tourism economy in the region.
“Maine’s governor [Janet Mills] is urging rural areas to use their natural resources in wise ways to elevate the economy,” Ward explains. “How perfect is this project; we’re using the natural resource of the night sky to draw people to the area.”
IDA Parks must demonstrate community support surrounding the protection of the night sky. Not only does the park provide access to an exceptional night sky environment, but it also helps educate the community and policymakers about night sky conservation, promote environmentally responsible outdoor lighting, and empower the public with resources to aid in these efforts on an individual level.
In May 2020, nearby Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument was designated an IDA Sanctuary, meaning it is situated in a remote enough place where there are already few threats to the preservation of the night sky.
AMC’s IDA Park designation has also laid the groundwork for the town of Greenville, Maine to become a Dark Sky Community. In fall 2020, Greenville retrofitted 181 of their streetlights with dark sky-compliant fixtures, which redirect the light away from the sky and toward the ground, minimizing light pollution. AMC is currently working with the Greenville school system to help retrofit outdoor lighting on their entire campus. AMC has also partnered with the North Maine Woods Association to change all of their gatehouse lighting, and will be providing dark sky educational material for anyone passing through Greenville on their way to Gorman Chairback and Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins.
IDA Park designation provides the opportunity to educate the public about the importance of a natural night sky. AMC already offers astronomy programs at all three Maine Lodges and at the Highland Center and Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in New Hampshire. Year-round, guests can use the lodges’ telescopes and other astronomy equipment and resources to observe the night sky. Once the IDA Park status is granted, AMC plans to bring more programming to the Maine Woods and gateway communities.
“Our programming goal has always been what I call environmental awareness from a cosmic perspective, where we use astronomy to engage the public in broader understanding of the environment and where we fit in—and thus to change attitudes and actions,” Arion says. “Light pollution is a major conservation and environmental issue, so addressing it is a perfect fit for the AMC, and an IDSP is just one step in putting it front-and-center with the public.”