DULUTH – The starry nights are no secret to those familiar with the Boundary Waters, but a new designation puts the wilderness area on the world map for those seeking stunning skies after dusk.
An international association recently certified the Boundary Waters as the world’s 13th dark sky sanctuary, a title given to land that has “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment.”
Other locations given this status by the International Dark-Sky Association include New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island and Utah’s Rainbow Bridge National Monument.
“Being able to see the night sky and the stars and the Milky Way and constellations — that’s part of a primitive experience,” said Ann Schwaller, Boundary Waters program manager for the Superior National Forest. “It’s something that people have been looking at for thousands of years here. Preserving that view is part of preserving wilderness character.”
Though the designation doesn’t change law or policy, it influences how the Forest Service uses outdoor lights and raises awareness about light pollution among neighbors and visitors.
Earning the status required a lighting management plan and measurements of darkness levels, which Schwaller and others took during several months in 2019 and 2020. On clear, dark nights, they’d use a sky quality meter, a small device that assesses the sky’s brightness by analyzing how much light strikes a sensor.
According to the International Dark-Sky Association, 80% of Americans can’t view the Milky Way where they live.
“When a kid comes here for the first time, they’ll be blown away because city lights are so bright that they’ve never seen anything but the moon before,” Schwaller said.
Since 2008, groups in northeastern Minnesota have talked about seeking various forms of recognition from the association. Maps of light pollution show the region among the darkest in the country, especially east of the Mississippi River.
Tourism marketers in Cook County recognized its asset and began to promote it. In December of 2018, they launched their first Dark Sky Festival. Bryan Hansel, a photographer who lives just outside Grand Marais, said a few dozen visitors had to be turned away at the door during a workshop he was giving on how to shoot night sky images at last year’s event.
“When you’re under the stars, the magnitude of the universe just becomes apparent,” said Hansel, who added he’s done workshops for people from as far as India and Ireland who traveled to Minnesota to photograph the Boundary Waters. The dark skies make it easier for even amateurs to snap shots of the Milky Way, and the region has also been rated one of the best places to see the northern lights in the Lower 48.
Hansel is part of the group that’s urged local governments and businesses to keep in mind the value of the county’s darkness when using outdoor lights. The level and color of the light, as well as a fixture’s ability to shield it, can make a difference in an area’s ranking on the Bortle scale, a rating system used to describe the night sky’s brightness.
Locals are betting the designation will draw more visitors to the region. Hansel envisions new attractions catered to the certification, like telescope tours and sessions on star folklore. Voyageurs National Park and Quetico Provincial Park in Canada are applying for similar dark-sky certifications that some hope could turn the region into an international destination for stargazers.
“I think it could bring tourism like crazy,” Hansel said. “I think there’s going to be a whole new dark-sky industry based around this.”