Forest preserve district hoping you'll see stars at Middle Fork

Forest preserve district hoping you'll see stars at Middle Fork

PENFIELD — Growing up in the middle of farm country in northern Champaign County, far from street lights or anything that interferes with a view of the sky, Matt Kuntz didn't think much about being able to see lots of stars and constellations on any clear night.

"I always took the dark sky for granted," said Kuntz, who has realized as superintendent of Middle Fork River Forest Preserve — located several miles west of the farm where he grew up — that others, especially in big cities, do not see the same night sky due to light pollution.

That fact has been impressed upon Kuntz by park-goers who come to Middle Fork to take advantage of the dark sky.

"We have so many campers who come from all over with telescopes," Kuntz said.

This year, park-goers with an eye to the sky may realize it's even darker.

Since fall 2016, after a suggestion from David Leake, director of Parkland's Staerkel Planetarium, Kuntz and Champaign County Forest Preserve District staff have been making specific lighting changes at Middle Fork that have it poised to become the first certified Dark-Sky Park in Illinois. There are only 55 in the world, and 39 of those are in the United States.

"It looks pretty promising," Leake said of the park district's chances to achieve the designation this spring after its application to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is submitted early this year.

The association's Dark-Sky Places Program was started in 2001 "to encourage communities around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education." The program has five types of designations — dark-sky communities, parks, reserves, sanctuaries and developments. Each has its own set of parameters that must be met to achieve the distinction from the international group.

On way out: Globe lights

So, what is light pollution? The IDA defines it as "inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light."

Besides hindering the view of stars, dark-sky proponents contend that light pollution has negative effects on wildlife, humans and the climate.

"We're not trying to get rid of lights," Leake said, explaining that he advocates for using light more wisely and efficiently.

At Middle Fork, that meant swapping out nearly 40-year-old globe-style street lights for energy-efficient lights with hoods that direct the illumination down to where it's actually needed.

"Honestly, that's the first thing I thought is, 'I get to replace those,'" Kuntz said.

Those changes and others are the result of a lighting inventory, the first step in the park's dark-sky initiative. The next step is coming up with a management plan with specific goals, which are more than two-thirds complete and should be met entirely within six months, when the last of the old street lights are replaced.

On way in: Astro-tourism

Lisa Sprinkle, the forest preserve district's marketing director, said the dark-sky designation will open up a whole new facet of public education and outreach opportunities at Middle Fork.

"It's exciting to come up with a new twist on what we've been doing," she said.

There's a tourism component, as well.

So-called "astro-tourists" will come, according to Leake. That can mean big business, as the hype over last year's solar eclipse demonstrated.

Leake has witnessed first-hand the wonder of students from Chicago when they first experience a dark-sky outing in Champaign County. The difference between the night sky in C-U and what people will see at Middle Fork is "night and day," he said, with as many as 30 to 40 more stars visible on a clear night.

"People take it for granted a little bit," Leake said of dark skies.

As for Kuntz, he now realizes that Middle Fork offers more than the experience of natural spaces on the ground.

"We offer the sky to the public," he said. "I had never looked at it that way."

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