“Top of the Pines has demonstrated their exceptional dedication and commitment to celebrating and preserving dark skies and serves as a role model to other parks and entities in this region,” said Ashley Wilson, the organization’s director of conservation, in a statement.
The park is a 175-acre recreation area at an elevation of 8,650 feet, located up County Road 5 from Ridgway. This wilderness space is owned by Ouray County, which accepted the land as a donation from the Girl Scouts as it was a former camp. It’s operated and managed by a nonprofit organization with a local board, and it’s well-known for hosting weddings, winter recreation and disc golf among other activities.
TOP’s dark sky is documented to be among the darkest in Colorado, as evidenced by its sky brightness measurement program. TOP’s Dark Sky Park designation comes after approximately two years of efforts that culminated with an application submittal to IDA in August 2021, under leadership from Val Szwarc, one of the park’s board members.
The goal is to keep it that way, with best practices for lighting, even down to the lanterns used by overnight campers.
“We’re asking campers to turn off even their camping lights at 10 o’clock,” said Szwarc. Keeping lights off overnight, as well as shielding lights and choosing specific-colored lights to limit pollution are just some of the methods used to limit light pollution.
Dark sky advocates have touted the importance of reducing light pollution not just for aesthetic reasons – they also cite reasons wildlife need dark skies for migration and even humans need it to keep their circadian rhythms in balance.
Szwarc and other members of the Ridgway-Ouray Community Council also worked for dark-sky designation for the Town of Ridgway last year. The award was granted in July 2020, two years after the process was started with ROCC’s influence.
Volunteers with the ROCC helped Top of the Pines representatives with the process, just as they did previously for the Town of Ridgway. Advocates with ROCC continue to volunteer to help locations in Ridgway come into compliance with the dark skies regulations, including replacing lights or adjusting lighting schedules at the library and secondary school.
Top of the Pines has become the sixth certified dark sky park in southwestern Colorado and the tenth in the state.
Neighboring areas have also pursued dark skies designations, and there is current effort to designate all of San Miguel County as a dark sky preserve, Szwarc said.
Ouray County is about to embark on revisions to its master plan, which could include goals for lighting. With that project on the horizon, Szwarc said there may be more work to be done.
“That could be an opportunity to improve some of the lighting policies for the county, to complement what Ridgway has done and what TOP has done,” he said.