Dark Sky Park

Night sky above the Headlands. Photo courtesy of Robert de Jonge, www.robertdejonge.com

Emmet County’s Headlands property awarded prestigious International Dark Sky Park designation 

The Headlands joins five other parks in the United States

 By Beth Anne Piehl, Emmet County Communications & Web Development Director

Prestigious International Dark Sky Park designation has been awarded to Emmet County’s Headlands property, a 600-acre thickly forested gem situated along the clear blue expanse of Lake Michigan just west of Mackinaw City. 

The board of directors with the Tucson, Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association made the official announcement on Monday, May 9, 2011. The Headlands becomes just the sixth International Dark Sky Park in the United States. 

The designation was awarded after a rigorous application and review process that culminated in January, after years of groundwork laid by county citizens and officials determined to preserve the night sky above Northern Michigan. Continual support from the Emmet County Board of Commissioners to work toward the designation was paramount. 

“The Headlands, with its two-and-a-half miles of shoreline and 600 acres of old-growth timber, is a beautiful place that will be protected forever,” said James E. Tamlyn, chairman of the Emmet County Board of Commissioners. “Add to that the ability to have uninterrupted night-time viewing and it continues that experience – and that’s what the Headlands is all about. It’s protected now, and as time goes by nothing’s going to change that.” 

To achieve International Dark Sky Park designation, a Dark Sky Park Committee of county staff and local residents compiled a comprehensive, 75-page application that included not only details about the amenities of the region and the Headlands, but also an intricate lighting inventory of each light fixture and their lighting output at three structures on the property. 

Importantly, the application needed to be sponsored by an IDA member with established astronomy knowledge. Through their early-on programming efforts, the committee caught the attention of internationally-recognized astronomer Patrick Stonehouse, who discovered Comet 1998 H1 (Comet Stonehouse) from his rooftop, personal observatory in next-door Cheboygan County. He served as Emmet County’s nominating authority by providing a letter of recommendation to the IDA, which was further supported with about 20 letters from state and local leaders across the arts, recreation, government, chambers of commerce and more. 

“Your achievement will benefit all those local star lovers who will have nowhere else to go in lower Michigan to see their celestial friends,” Stonehouse wrote, in a congratulatory email after learning of the designation. “Children from the cities who have only seen pictures of stars in books will be thrilled and inspired as they gaze at thousands of bright twinkling stars, silent and magically suspended in the clear dark skies over the Headlands.” 

The IDA also required light meter readings of the sky at dark; copies of the county’s stringent lighting ordinances; maps; and programming and marketing plans. 

“Emmet County’s zoning ordinances have sound and up-to-date outdoor lighting requirements, which expedited the successful application for Dark Sky Park status,” said Mary Lou Tanton, Dark Sky Park Committee member and founder of the Petoskey-based Outdoor Lighting Forum. “We hope to continue to work with other Michigan communities to enact similar provisions.” 

One of the most important application requirements of the IDA is demonstrated community outreach and support for protecting the night sky – an area where IDA evaluators noted the county excelled.

Over the past year alone, a number of events have been held at the Headlands to showcase the property and the pristine viewing opportunities of the night sky. One of the most unique programs came in December 2010, when Harbor Springs night sky expert Mary Stewart Adams hosted about 75 people who turned out to stay up through the night to view the lunar eclipse on the winter solstice, along with the Ursid meteor show. The Headlands Challenge on Halloween-eve drew hundreds of people to walk a mile-long pumpkin-lighted path from the entrance of the park to the Beach House, where Adams was waiting to spin fortunes tied to the celestial observations of the night. 

Adams has hosted numerous other educational programs at the Headlands and other regional venues, and as a Dark Sky Park Committee member, she was integral in developing future programming ideas to present to the IDA. 

Also serving on the Dark Sky Park Committee are County Controller Lyn Johnson, Parks and Recreation Director Laurie Gaetano, Outdoor Lighting Forum Founder Mary Lou Tanton, and county Communications and Web Development Director Beth Anne Piehl. Shelly House, the Headlands’ caretaker, also assisted in compiling lighting data. 

“About four years ago, several people began meeting out of our shared interest in protecting the night sky. I had learned about the Outdoor Lighting Forum just one year prior and I was so excited because I didn’t know they existed,” said Adams, who combines her knowledge of astronomy with celestial lore as a popular public speaker. “They were laying the groundwork, they were doing the technical components, and I provided the cultural-impact information about ‘Here’s why we do this, its effect on quality of life and what it is possible to experience when we achieve a truly dark night sky.’" 

Adams said the International Dark Sky Park designation is the pinnacle of the group’s efforts. 

“The designation gives us a place to stand so we can raise awareness about the importance of having a dark night,” Adams said. “It’s good for the health and well-being of human beings and of nature. We who enjoy the benefit of living in a beautiful natural environment like in Emmet County have a built-in responsibility to steward these areas in ways that protect them for everyone's enjoyment. And we don’t only need to be concerned with the quality of our water and our air, but also another resource that belongs to all of us – the night sky. 

“One misdirected light can wipe out a lot of stars. There are many areas in the U.S. where you can’t even see the Milky Way! It’s a hugely different quality of life in Emmet County, and the fact that you can see the night sky has a lot to do with that quality of life.” 

Gaetano said the designation will open up even more recreational opportunities for Emmet County residents and visitors who already can enjoy five miles of trails and stretches of undisturbed shoreline at the Headlands; free tours of McGulpin Point Lighthouse and Historic Site; camping and lake access at Camp Pet-O-Se-Ga; and events at the fairgrounds in Petoskey. 

“We are extremely fortunate to have so many natural resources in Emmet County, and we are excited about the possibilities for new programs and activities that the Dark Sky Park designation will bring,” Gaetano said. “This important designation will spur many more opportunities for the public to come out and enjoy the beauty of the land, waters and skies that define North Michigan. And it will also ensure the protection of the many animal and bird species that call the Headlands home.” 

The IDA’s official designation is deemed “provisional” until county officials replace a handful of non-conforming light fixtures at the Beach House and Guest House. IDA leaders said once those fixtures are replaced – with a county-set deadline of July 31, 2011 – the provisional status will be lifted. The need to replace the fixtures does not impact the designation, IDA officials noted. 

Among the three tiers of designation – gold, silver and bronze -- Emmet County was granted a “high silver tier” with the opportunity to advance to gold level once the handful of light fixtures are brought into conformity with the county lighting ordinance, and through continued community outreach. 

“It’s exciting that the IDA is encouraging us to continue for gold-tier status. It is definitely within reach,” said Adams. “The Dark Sky Park committee is so grateful for their guidance and support through the entire process, and we’re thrilled they were ready to announce the designation at this point so we can begin celebrating and spreading the word.” 

Tanton said Emmet County’s action toward Dark Sky Park designation and night-sky preservation is a model for others to follow. 

“Already endorsed by the American Medical Association and 18 states, I would like Michigan to enact statewide legislation requiring shielded outdoor lighting to reduce light pollution and prevent the resulting health problems,” said Tanton. “Good outdoor lighting is a key safety issue, as well as energy saving. Nine million tons of coal are burned annually to generate electricity to create light that is misdirected and wasted up into the sky.” 

That is not, however, the case in Emmet County. 

“We in Emmet County hope that by sharing this Dark Sky Park, we will encourage other communities to preserve and protect their nighttime environment and dark-sky heritage by promoting good outdoor lighting practices,” Tanton said.

For more information about the International Dark Sky Park at the Headlands, call (231) 348-1704 or email bpiehl@emmetcounty.org.

Dark Sky Park FAQs

What is the International Dark Sky Association?The IDA is the recognized authority on light pollution. Founded in 1988, IDA is the first organization to call attention to the hazards of light pollution. The group promotes one simple idea: light what you need, when you need it. Recognizing some light at night is necessary for safety and recreation, the IDA works with manufacturers, planners, legislators, and citizens to provide energy-efficient options that direct the light where it is needed, not uselessly up into the sky. 

The IDA also offers support in crafting ordinances and ensures starry spaces for future generations through its Dark Sky Places conservation program. 

Find more information at www.darksky.org 

What is a Dark Sky Park? Such parks are defined as a park or other public land possessing exceptional starry skies and natural nocturnal habitat where light pollution is mitigated and natural darkness is valuable as an important educational, cultural, scenic, and natural resource. 

The rigorous process of application requires public participation and often years/months of preparation. 

The world’s first International Dark Sky Park is Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah. Four additional parks in the US are Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania, Geauga Park District’s Observatory Park in Ohio, Clayton Lake State Park in New Mexico, and Goldendale Observatory Park in Washington. 

How rare is Dark Sky Park designation? According to the IDA Web site, only 1% of US population lives in gold-tier areas; 16% in silver; and 21% in bronze. Compare that to Australia at 29%, 9%, and 25%; Canada at 3%, 14%, and 12%; and Germany 0%, 34% and 41%. Thus Gold DSPs will likely be designated in areas of sparse population.

Media coverage of Dark Sky Park announcement

The Grain Train food co-op in downtown Petoskey shares the excitement with its patrons!

The media has been generous to Emmet County in the days following the International Dark Sky Park designation announcement in early May 2011.

International Dark-sky Association Web site and press release

 May 8, 2011, edition of the Detroit Free Press

Mary Ellen Geist, Interlochen Public Radio

TV 7 & 4 (Traverse City), with reporter Andrew Keller

Absolute Michigan

The Traverse City ticker, with Vic McCarty

 Petoskey News-Review May 9, 2011

 Harbor Light Newspaper, Harbor Springs

 Visit Michigan Up North

Dark-Sky Park momentum continues


Locals, county officials continue work to secure Dark-Sky Park designation 

The northern hemisphere is approaching winter with longer nights and shorter days, making constellations and intergalactic events more visible at an earlier hour each evening. 

In Northern Michigan, the lack of light pollution that allows for pristine views of the night sky is a resource to protect, according to Mary Stewart Adams, a Harbor Springs night-sky enthusiast who is working with Emmet County officials on creating an International Dark-Sky Park here. 

In recent months, the momentum to receive the designation at the county-owned Headlands property, just west of Mackinaw City, has increased. 

“We’re preparing to present all the necessary materials and reports to the International Dark-Sky Association in the next few weeks,” said Adams. “Once they receive our materials and letters of endorsement – and we have many – representatives from the association will make the mandatory trip to our area.” 

Adams has most recently been working with LaurieGaetano, the county’s Parks and Recreation Director, and Brentt Michalek, the county’s Planning and Zoning Director, on measuring light levels, drafting a lighting guideline and reviewing the county’s light ordinance in preparation for final application as a Dark-Sky Park. The original team to take steps toward seeking designation included Adams, Mary Lou Tanton, a Petoskey resident whose dedicated work through the Outdoor Lighting Forum created a solid foundation for raising awareness about light pollution in the area, and Fred Gray, Mackinaw City resident, author and retired columnist. 

In April, the Emmet County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to support the group’s effort for Dark-Sky Park designation. It would be the first in Michigan and one of only a few in the United States.
The designation would identify the Headlands as an area with proven commitment to dark-sky preservation and as a place with exceptional night-sky viewing opportunities. The designation also signifies the park’s owners are committed to preserving nocturnal habitat, as well as providing a venue for professional and amateur astronomy. 

The Headlands is a 600-acre parcel that is largely undeveloped. There are two large houses on the property that are available for rent, but aside from those structures the acreage is densely populated with trees and wildlife. The property also includes miles of undisturbed Lake Michigan shoreline.
Because of its situation in northwest Emmet County, nearby development is also sparse. The Village of Mackinaw City is about 2 miles to the east and the expanse of Lake Michigan forms the western border. 

“Designating the Headlands as a Dark-Sky Park would help to preserve the intent of this beautiful piece of property, and encourage residents and visitors to help protect our natural resources as well,” said Gaetano. 

She and Adams are currently working with Michalek to ensure the county’s lighting ordinance will support efforts to limit light pollution in the area of the Headlands. In addition, they will soon be using devices to gauge light levels at the property after dark. Adjustments may be needed on several lights to direct the light downward rather than upward, Gaetano said, but there are only a few. 

A lighting guideline will also be drafted that would spell out future uses of the property and what would and would not be allowed at the site. 

The International Dark-Sky Park Association also requires an educational component of the parks that receive its designation, and Adams has begun formulating ideas for how to teach children, residents and visitors about the importance of protecting views of the night sky. She said she would also welcome the opportunity to share information about constellations, cosmic events and more. Adams, who has been coordinating this effort on a volunteer basis, will work with the county in determining venues and literature for these educational components. 

“That’s one of the most exciting aspects of the Dark-Sky Park designation – educating others about the importance of protecting what we all love about Northern Michigan,” said Adams, an astrosopher. “I’m confident Emmet County will be a strong candidate for this coveted recognition and, if successful, we will have innumerable opportunities spring from it. This is a very special place, and this will give us the opportunity to share that with others on an international level.”