GANGES TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Many West Michigan stargazers flock to the state’s three dark-sky parks to catch some stellar views of the night sky. Currently, that involves a long drive. One organizer is working to change that.
Maureen Lewandowski has taken the lead to have the William Erby Smith Preserve — also known as Wau-Ke-Na — certified with the International Dark-Sky Association.
The 365-acre tract of land is about 7 miles southwest of downtown Fennville and is managed by the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy. The northern tract includes a half-mile path that leads visitors to 1,300 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline.
If approved, Wau-Ke-Na would be Michigan’s fourth dark-sky park, joining Headlands International Dark-Sky Park in Mackinaw City, Dr. T.K. Lawless Park in Cass County and Keweenaw Dark-Sky Park in Copper Harbor.
For Lewandowski, who has led park projects in the past, it’s all about preservation and giving people the opportunity to make their own connections with nature.
“It’s not about the money,” Lewandowski said with a laugh. “I’ve done other parks and I’m so grateful. South Haven worked with me with (Deerlick Creek Beach) and then Van Buren (County) worked with me to get a conservation easement on (North Point Conservation Area) so those would always stay parks in the future.”
She continued: “You never do stuff for you or you’re going to lead a sad life.”
The park itself won’t require many changes. To be certified, dark-sky parks need a parking lot and have to be accessible to the public — a standard Wau-Ke-Na already meets. The park also needs to provide measurements of light readings that show there is no major light pollution. That can slow down the certification process. Lewandowski says it usually takes between three to five years.
“There have been some places that did it in a year. The (IDA) wants to get those measurements to make sure it’s a dark sky year-round,” she told News 8.
Measurements are done on nights where there is a new moon so moonlight doesn’t throw off the reading. That limits the number of days to get readings, especially when the clouds won’t cooperate. Lewandowski got her first reading in November but has yet to have a clear day since.
“It has been cloudy every time I’ve tried to catch it on the new moon, so we’re hoping this spring and summer we will catch some more,” she said.
An instrument known as a sky quality meter is used to determine the luminance of the night sky. It is measured on a scale between 16 and 22 magnitudes per square arc second: the higher the number, the darker the sky. To be certified as a dark-sky park, readings must be at 21.2 or higher. Using a basic tool, Lewandowski recorded a 21.3 in November. The IDA’s satellite tools measured the same night as a 21.5.
While Lewandowski hopes the dark-sky certification will give stargazers a new place to visit, she also hopes it will draw attention to light pollution and the negative effects it can have on our lives.
“I always tell people that I am just scratching the surface, but the (IDA) has different brochures online,” she said.
“They could actually determine that our sleep cycles are changing (because of artificial light). It also affects your immune system and (can be traced as) one of the reasons for the increase in breast cancer and prostate cancer,” she continued, citing the IDA.
The IDA is promoting a package of legislation to help communities transition to become “dark cities.” That involves using certain types of light bulbs and light fixtures designed to only point light down to the ground instead of ambiently.
“IDA estimates that at least 30% of all outdoor lighting in the U.S. alone is wasted, mostly by lights that aren’t shielded,” the association says. “That adds up to $3.3 billion and the release of 21 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. … Quality lighting design reduces energy use and therefore energy dependence. It also reduces carbon emissions, saves money and allows us to enjoy the night sky.”
Seventeen states have some form of light pollution laws. Michigan is not one of them.