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Chimney Rock works to preserve stories in the sky


Efforts to obtain International Dark Sky Park certification for Chimney Rock National Monument continue, including partnerships with local organizations and dark sky-focused updates to the monument kiosk and visitor center, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Environmental Protection Specialist Kenar Houghton explained in an interview.

According to the DarkSky International website, the International Dark Sky Places program, of which Dark Sky Park certification is a part, “certifies communities, parks, and protected areas around the world that preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education.”

There are more than 220 Dark Sky-certified places in the world, the website indicates, including cities, parks, nature preserves and other areas.

It adds that Dark Sky certification involves the implementation of light fixtures and policies that preserve dark skies and prevent light pollution, as well as outreach and education about the value and importance of dark skies.

Houghton explained that dark skies were critical to many ancient cultures, such as those represented at Chimney Rock, and that preserving them helps preserve the cultures and histories they impact.

“Even outside of Native American culture, when we look at a lot of ancient civilizations, a lot of their belief systems, the way that they interpreted the world and navigated the world was based on astronomy,” she said. “So, the stars told the stories of their gods, of their role models, of the way that they did things. And when you think about the way that the skies looked thousands of years ago before we had cities that gave off all this artificial light, they were able to see so much more to build out these culturally significant stories and belief systems and religious practices.

“So, I think that, and I don’t want to speak for them in any way, but my assumption, just based on the general idea of how astronomy has influenced human culture over time, I think one of the biggest things is being able to see all of the stars that helped build those stories.”

The San Juan National Forest webpage for the monument also emphasizes the importance of astronomy to its history and archaeology, commenting, “The pinnacles that give Chimney Rock its name frame multiple astronomical alignments. The Ancestral Puebloans incorporated their knowledge of astronomy into the design of their community. Today Chimney Rock is one of the best recognized archaeo-astronomical resources in North America, with alignments with the northern lunar standstill, summer solstice, equinoxes and Crab Nebula.”

USFS Pagosa District Archaeologist Lindsey Smith explains in a communication to The SUN that the monument has a lengthy history with dark sky-adjacent concepts prior to the beginning of work on a Dark Sky certification in 2023.

“The [San Juan National Forest] completed preliminary Dark Sky studies as part of the Environment Assessment (EA) under [the National Environmental Protection Act] and the Monument Management Plan, both put out for public review/comment and finalized after the monument was designated in 2012,” Smith states. “The Forest had full support from our partner CRIA (Chimney Rock Interpretive Association) and the [San Juan Stargazers Astronomy Club] in 2017.” 

She adds that an advisory team for the monument, “discussed Dark Sky interpretative materials when we completed the Interpretation and Education Plan in 2017.”

Houghton explained that the Dark Sky-certification process begins with a pre-application where the eligibility of the site seeking certification is reviewed by DarkSky staff and the applicant submits documentation outlining the current dark sky conditions at the site, their general goals and the type of certification they are seeking.

This step is one of the most challenging in the certification process, Houghton commented, noting that, in her understanding, most sites that are eliminated are eliminated at this stage.

She added that the availability of DarkSky staff to assist projects is also a potential factor in if a site can move forward.

However, Houghton noted, “They try to be more inclusive than exclusive because the importance of dark skies outweighs the unique marketability of it.”

After completing the pre-application review, she explained, the applicant pays an application fee, which goes to support a DarkSky representative who assists the applicant in completing the application and understanding the application requirements.

One key requirement of the application is a restoration project, Houghton stated, adding that this project is intended to demonstrate the applicant’s contribution to dark sky preservation and messaging.

For many parks, she added, this project focuses on changing lights at the park to make them compliant with DarkSky requirements.

However, Houghton explained that the DarkSky certification process at Chimney Rock is unique due to the visitor center at the monument already integrating in dark sky-friendly lighting.

“Usually, when you go through this process, they tell you, ‘Oh, well you’re not compliant. You need to have a restoration project that makes you compliant. Here’s your light management plan,’ and all that stuff,” Houghton explained.

She stated that already having the visitor center meet Dark Sky standards helped the certification process move forward more quickly since it did not involve extensive retrofits or redesigns of the center.

Smith explains that the USFS created an advisory group that worked from 2017 to 2019 to assist in designing the updated visitor center and park accommodations.

“The advisory group’s overall desire in the design and usage of the new footprint was ‘exploring and enjoying nature/being in a natural landscape’ on the upper mesa and around the lower parts of the monument,” Smith states. “There was a strong push for minimizing interior (enclosed) spaces and maximizing outside spaces –this would reduce the need for heating/cooling, lighting and additional security.”

Smith indicates that the pathways at the park are lit with downward-facing lights that are manually activated, meaning that the outdoor portions of the park accommodations are not lit at night unless a special event is occurring.

She states that, due to government safety regulations, interior safety lights and illuminated exit signs remain on at the visitor center at night, spilling some light into the surrounding environment.

However, she adds, the other buildings at the monument are not illuminated and “there are no lights on the upper mesa – that includes the parking area, trails or any place near prehistoric architectural features.”

Due to already meeting Dark Sky standards at its buildings, Houghton explained that the monument had to pursue an alternative approach to its restoration project, with a focus on outreach about the cultural significance of dark skies and their importance to wildlife.

“We’re doing more outreach outside of Chimney Rock itself to help fill that requirement for the restoration project,” she said.

She stated that the restoration project involved collaboration with local organizations such as CRIA, the Weminuche Audubon Society and San Juan Stargazers, who have helped write letters of support for the project, promote dark skies and craft messaging.

Houghton indicated that this messaging will be used to update the kiosk outside the park, which is planned to include information on the Dark Sky certification for the monument, the history of dark sky efforts there and the importance of dark skies to both the cultures represented at the site and the surrounding environment.

She added that the visitor center will contain additional information on dark skies at the park and general dark sky practices, including ways to diminish light pollution while camping.

Houghton stated that the monument also hopes to bring these materials to a location in Pagosa Springs where they will have additional exposure.

She indicated that these updates are planned to occur in the late spring or early summer of 2024 and to be in place when the monument opens for its summer season.

The monument also offers a range of programs that depend on dark skies, she added, including stargazing and celestial body viewing events with the San Juan Stargazers.

She commented that 60 to 70 percent of the monument’s programming is dependent on dark skies or “astronomically motivated,” including upcoming programs related to the lunar standstill in 2024 and 2025.

In addition to astronomy programs, Houghton added that the monument’s daytime programming has deep connections to astronomy, given the history and purposes of the site.

In addition to the restoration project, another requirement for certification is collecting dark sky quality readings at the site, Houghton stated, which include latitude, longitude and sky quality meter (SQM) readings for a variety of locations, including those commonly visited by park users and less-traveled locations.

She explained that the number of SQM readings required for certification varies depending on the size of the area being certified, with larger areas requiring more readings.

Houghton stated that the SQM measures the brightness of the sky in magnitudes per square arcsecond, which indicates the magnitude (brightness) a celestial object would have to display to match the amount of light present in a square arcsecond area of the sky.

She added that a higher number on this scale means that the sky is darker and that differing types of Dark Sky certification must meet different thresholds of sky darkness to qualify.

Houghton explained that the park certification that Chimney Rock is pursuing is more restrictive in terms of light levels and other requirements than the certification for municipalities, but is less restrictive than the certifications for reserves (a certification for large areas of about 173,000 acres or more) or sanctuaries (a certification for remote locations that includes more stringent standards for sky darkness).

She explained that the required sky darkness readings for Chimney Rock include five points in the monument, and that two SQM readings are taken at each site and averaged out.

Although Houghton indicated that there is not a specific sampling protocol required for certification, she stated that Chimney Rock is doing four sets of SQM readings at each site, with one reading for each season.

She added that the SQM readings are done in absolute darkness, but that there is not a specific stipulation for what time of night the readings are performed.

Houghton explained that, once the Dark Sky application is completed and the appropriate SQM readings are collected, the application is reviewed by the DarkSky representative, who may provide comments or feedback, and then passed on to the state Dark Sky Committee, which reviews the application, requests edits if necessary and ultimately makes a decision on awarding the certification.

She stated that, once the certification is approved by the committee, the applicant can start using the certification in marketing or education materials at the site.

Houghton stated that she hopes to have the application for certification completed and submitted this summer, with the certification hopefully occurring by the late summer or fall.

The Dark Sky certification must be maintained, Houghton explained, which requires yearly SQM readings and ongoing outreach efforts.

She stated that ongoing dark sky messaging and outreach is an element of the management plan for the site, drafted in collaboration with tribal partners and the CRIA.

The presence of these elements in the management plan will help sustain dark sky outreach efforts, and thus the certification, Houghton commented, adding that many nighttime programs at the monument currently integrate in dark sky messaging and advocacy.

In the long-term, she explained that dark sky messaging may be folded into additional programming presented at the site, although she noted that this process will require input from the tribal partners who help manage the site and who collaborate with the USFS and others to build the management plan and design programs.

Houghton stated that these tribal partners all have “culturally significant ties to the monument and the archeology that’s there.”

Smith adds that the tribal partners for the site include the Pueblos of Acoma, Cochiti, Hopi, Isleta, Jemez, Kewa, Laguna, Nambe, Ohkay Owingeh, Picuris, Pojoaque, Sandia, San Felipe, San Ildefonso, Santa Ana, Taos, Tesuque, Zia, Zuni; the Navajo Nation; the Jicarilla Apache Indian Tribe; the Southern Ute Indian Tribe; the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe; and the Northern Ute Indian Tribe.

Additionally, Houghton commented that one of the main goals of the project is to inspire dark sky advocacy and activity outside the boundaries of the park.

“One of the biggest impacts is being able to show people that you can contribute to dark sky preservation outside of just the national parks doing it or outside of just the national monuments doing it,” she said. “It’s a great way to get people who are passionate about astronomy also passionate about preservation because a lot of the time I think, especially if you grow up in a city like I did — I didn’t even see the milky way until I moved out here to Durango, it was my first time seeing it at Chimney Rock — it’s something that people don’t necessarily consider or think about. A lot of the stuff that we think of when we think of preservation is, ‘Oh, we don’t cut down trees,’ ‘Oh, we need to make sure we protect wildlife habitat by doing x, y and z,’ but this is like … the opposite side of the same coin.

“I think that building off the astronomical events that Chimney Rock puts on for visitors to really promote this dark sky messaging, not only for the park itself but also for people and the way that they individually recreate or the way they add lights to their house, I think that’s where a lot of the impact comes from.”