CONFER: New York should promote its dark skies

Bob Confer

Over the past 15 years, astrotourism has become one of the fastest-growing trends in tourism.

We clearly saw that with one significant event, 2017’s solar eclipse, which saw 7 million Americans make the pilgrimage to the eclipse’s best paths.

But, astrotourism is more than just one eclipse. It has become a sustainable industry.

What once was travel only partaken by hardcore astronomers has become mainstream as more and more people from all walks of life venture to places with dark skies (that is, away from the city lights) to see the northern lights or observe celestial bodies and meteor showers in skies nearly as pristine as those that our ancestors slept under.

It’s something that New York should capitalize on, but really isn’t.

All told, the state and individual counties and chambers of commerce spend millions of dollars every year on advertising all of the natural wonders in our state (like Niagara Falls, the Adirondacks, and the Thousand Islands). Very little, if anything, is spent on promoting our dark skies, despite having some very special sites in the Empire State.

In the Southern Tier, a good chunk of territory that runs along the Pennsylvania border and includes towns like Alma, Whitesville and Jasper falls under nearly dark sky jurisdiction and stargazers are greeted by nighttime skies featuring countless stars and thick imagery of the Milky Way. The skies are so dark that the Town of Alma’s strategic plan issued in 2016 had a whole section devoted to the promotion of stargazing, in hopes of one day having a dark sky festival and having the purity of their skies receive accreditation from various astronomy governing bodies.

Looking across the state, approximately two-thirds of Adirondack Park, a massive area, falls into that same category of night sky, too. There is a small area within it, though, where the skies are even darker, the darkest in the entire northeast. About a half hour to the east of the ever-popular community Old Forge is a dark sky area centered around Raquette Lake. There, skywatchers are treated to the heavens exactly as they were before Thomas Edison’s light bulb took hold and drowned out the stars. In that place, 10,000 stars can be seen with the naked eye. To put that in perspective, that’s seven to 10 times what you can see on a good night in rural Niagara County.

To see exactly what I mean about dark sky ratings, refer to the dark sky finder at tinyurl.com/ConferDarkSky. There, you can zoom in and out of the map of the United States to find the best places to see the stars.

The nearness of the Southern Tier and the Adirondacks to the population centers of the northeast is appealing to this newest demographic of outdoor adventurer. Both locations are just one tank of gas away from 56 million people.

They could all use that primordial exposure to the sky above. We all could. Eighty percent of North Americans can’t see the Milky Way through light pollution, even here.

Ten years ago, in a column for this paper, I lamented the loss of dark skies in the immediate area. Thanks to the city lights of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Lockport and the Greater Toronto area, Niagara’s skies are anything but dark and our rural communities aren’t spared that. That’s why locals had such a hard time seeing Comet NEOWISE earlier this year. Other places in this state had a great chance to see a rare naked-eye comet, but we couldn’t.

That nighttime misery, as bad as it is, is nothing compared to that of New York City where its residents never see stars unless the electrical grid goes out as it did in August of 2013. That outage was probably a wake-up call to many metropolitan denizens. That’s because the first time you have unfettered access to the heavens is unforgettable; you feel like a new person, spiritually and intellectually. You’ll want more of that experience, guaranteed.

It’s time that the good people at “I love New York” and other tourism offices across the state took advantage of that desire to be mystified by the stars. With even just a little focus on astrotourism, they can bring in new customers who will, in turn, be repeat customers. We’re already losing tens of thousands of astrotourists every year to Pennsylvania’s well-promoted Cherry Spring State Park.

Let’s not get further behind in that regard. Outdoors-centric travel continues its ascent in the COVID era as people look to escape lockdowns and home confinement to experience the awesome sights that Mother Nature can provide.

Bob Confer of Gasport is vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.

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