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new Dark Skies news from NZ

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  • Robert Blake
    Search the yahoo article to see the photograph: New Zealand town is in the dark — and proud of it Buzz Up Send Email IM Share Digg Facebook Newsvine
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 8, 2009
      Search the yahoo article to see the photograph:

      New Zealand town is in the dark — and proud of it
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      Yahoo! Bookmarks Print By RAY LILLEY, Associated Press Writer Ray
      Lilley, Associated Press Writer – Sun Feb 8, 11:03 am ET AP – A stone
      chapel is shown on the edge of Lake Tekapo under the sparkling sky in
      New Zealand's South Island … TEKAPO, New Zealand – This little town
      is in the dark and proud of it.

      Where other places greet the night by lighting up their streets and
      tourist attractions, this one goes the other way — low-energy sodium
      lamps are shielded from above, and household lights must face down,
      not up.

      The purpose: to bring out the stars.

      The town of 830 people on New Zealand's South Island is on a mission
      to protect the sight of the night sky, even as it disappears behind
      light and haze in many parts of the world.

      The ultimate prize would be UNESCO's approval for the
      first "starlight reserve," and already the "astro tourists" are

      A group of 25 are huddled at midnight on a bare New Zealand hilltop,
      their faces numbed by an icy wind as they gaze up at the Milky Way.

      "It's awesome, I mean it's like beyond words," says Simon Venvoort,
      46, a management consultant from Amsterdam. "You see so much you
      aren't aware of."

      "You know that two generations now are growing up not being aware
      that all this is out there because ... half of the world is light-

      It's estimated that about one fifth of the world's population and
      more than two-thirds in the U.S. cannot see the Milky Way from their

      The "starlight reserve" idea germinated in UNESCO in 2005. Tekapo, in
      the McKenzie Basin of South Island, was already on its own track,
      seeking what locals were calling their "park in the sky." So Tekapo
      was suggested as a pilot site because of its haze-free sky and
      lighting controls already in place.

      A UNESCO working party agreed last month to study what Graeme Murray,
      chairman of the Mackenzie Tourism and Development Board, calls "a
      heritage park in the sky."

      "We helped make UNESCO world heritage look upward as well as around
      them in protecting the world's heritage," he says.

      The U.N. body has extended world heritage status to 878 historic,
      cultural, ecological and natural sites around the planet, but none
      includes the sky.

      The idea faces significant challenges — UNESCO's conventions do not
      mention the space above and around heritage sites, and there's still
      the question of how to define a piece of open sky for conservation

      The darkening of Tekapo began in 1965 to serve the Mount John
      Observatory that opened on nearby Mount John. Town officials later
      turned necessity into a virtue by expanding controls on public and
      private lighting in a 19-mile ring around the town and observatory to
      keep the sky dark.

      Three new housing developments have spent extra money for "sky-
      friendly" lighting. A skating rink even installed special lighting to
      prevent ultraviolet light reflecting off its ice surface into the
      night sky.

      "We've got a dark sky and we've got to hang on to it," said Murray,
      who also runs a sky-watching ecotourism company.

      Not that people here are bumping into each other or driving blind
      during the night hours. And anyway, there's plenty of starlight, as
      residents note.

      "We're certainly not living in the dark," said Lorna Inch, a real
      estate agent. "We've got a beautiful sky that we all enjoy many
      nights of the year. There's a lot of natural light from the stars,"
      plus those dimmed residential lights.

      Some 150 years ago, unlit nights were the friend of a sheep rustling
      legend named James McKenzie and his faithful dog, Friday, as they
      stole through the landscape, driving flocks of stolen livestock deep
      into the basin that is now named after him.

      Today a bronze statue of McKenzie's sheepdog stands — not floodlit —
      on Tekapo's lake front.

      Resident Fraser Gunn, a night sky photographer, said people initially
      worried that with the light restrictions they wouldn't be able to
      develop the town. "But that isn't the case at all."

      Regional economic development manager Phil Brownie said the lighting
      control ordinances "are not severe at all ... they do allow the
      community to develop and build ... and haven't imposed any

      Anna Sidorenko-Dulom, UNESCO coordinator of Astronomy and World
      Heritage, calls the sky park "an interesting proposal which needs to
      be evaluated," but adds that existing guidelines don't allow for
      protecting the sky.

      "We cannot promote sky protection or sky recognition through the
      Convention on World Heritage. These are two completely different
      things," she said by telephone from Paris.

      The chairwoman of New Zealand's National Commission of UNESCO,
      Margaret Austin, is more positive. She expects the park idea to be
      considered by UNESCO's general conference in October.

      The former science minister says other countries interested in the
      idea are La Palma in the Canary Islands, Hawaii, Easter Island, the
      Galapagos Islands, Portugal, Canada, Romania and northern Chile.

      Death Valley, Calif., is one of several U.S. national parks working
      to keep its lights low, the better to see the night sky. In Thailand,
      people living alongside the Mae Klong River say the fireflies are
      dwindling in number, chased away, they believe, by the ever-spreading
      glow of electric light.

      "There's enough movement now among the principal players for it to
      gather momentum," said Austin. "The main sticking point is to get the
      criteria in the convention changed so it can include the sky above
      the land."

      Atop Mount John, an astronomy guide's green laser stabs the night,
      picking out another stellar feature for the astro tourists.

      For the guide, Chris Monson from Phoenix, Tekapo offers a chance to
      see something long lost to city-dwellers — "such pristine, dark

      Back in cities like Phoenix, grandparents may have seen starlit
      skies, but "now it's just something we hear about," he said. "We
      don't get to experience the stars and those constellations."
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