When friends visit Kjersti Vick on Minnesota's North Shore, there's often a question posed after sunset.
"When we'd be sitting around the campfire, people would get really quiet. And then they'd say, 'Are there always this many stars?'" said Vick, director of marketing and public relations for Visit Cook County. "Dark skies are super important. And they're becoming more and more rare."
Few inhabited places in the world have darker skies than Cook County, blessed with a small population and vast tracts of undeveloped land including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Superior National Forest, with Voyageurs National Park not far away.
Other Minnesota cities, along with the state, are trying to take back the dark.
Duluth, New Prague, Royalton, Sauk Rapids and Scandia are among cities in greater Minnesota that have been recognized for significant progress in reducing light pollution by GreenStep Cities, an initiative of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). In the metro area, Lakeville and Richfield have earned the group's highest recognition.
"There's definitely renewed interest as more cities and communities across the United States and the world are thinking about light pollution and how that affects their communities," said Kristin Mroz, MPCA's GreenStep Cities and Tribal Nations co-director.
It's one thing to head up north to gaze at the pristine skies but quite another to tamp down on lighting in busy metro areas where people can equate more light with more safety. Yet, a growing number of cities are giving it a shot.
While debate has raged in Minneapolis about proposals to spend $9 million on public lighting, cities such as Bloomington and Plymouth have won a reputation for building codes that make a priority of dark sky-friendly lighting.
"We have one of the strictest lighting ordinances in the metro area," said Chloe McGuire, Plymouth's planning and development manager. "The ordinance is intended to reduce light pollution throughout the city. I think people are realizing how much that matters for mental health."
Northfield, meanwhile, is completing a new lighting ordinance that could be adopted early next year.
"This was one more piece of trying to improve our development code to be climate-friendly," said Betsey Buckheit, chair of the city's Planning Commission. "This was an incremental step we decided we could take."
Much of the progress in the cities has come from rethinking public buildings, an area where governments can take immediate action. Common steps include mandating outdoor light fixtures that are focused down, rather than diffusing their light in all directions. The use of timers or photosensitive controls is also widespread.
The proposed Northfield lighting ordinance specifies a number of lights that would no longer be permitted in the name of preventing "light trespass," even in residential areas. They include unshielded bollards, barn lights and carriage lights.
The state has been encouraging improved lighting in the name of energy efficiency for decades but now also takes light pollution into account when writing codes and regulations.
More than a decade ago, the Legislature passed a law directing the state Department of Administration to develop a model lighting ordinance that could be adopted by cities and other local governments. However, the lawmakers have never appropriated the money to make that happen, according to a department spokesperson.
One agency that's been moving ahead on lighting changes is the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). In the past decade, MnDOT has replaced more than 99% of its 28,000 highway lights with LED luminaires that have twice the energy efficiency while producing much less light pollution, said Sue Zarling, the department's signal and lighting engineer.
In fact, she said, MnDOT is now prohibited by law from buying fixtures that produce "uplight." The state began its highway lighting program more than a decade ago, she said, and other states have followed suit.
"We've been able to have a big impact on highways because we were early adopters," Zarling said. "A lot of states actually copied our specifications early on."
Meanwhile, Cook County is getting ready for its Dark Sky Festival, an annual event running Dec. 8-10. Attractions include dark sky dinners on the Gunflint Trail as well as star parties, telescopic sky viewings and presentations from astrophysicists and naturalists.
"In a lot of places, you have to travel a really long way to find dark skies," VIck said. "In Minnesota, you just drive four hours to get to some of the darkest skies in the world."