'Stewards of the land and sky'
Published Jan. 29, 2020
JONES — Visitors to Dr. T.K. Lawless Park in Jones will soon be able to better enjoy the nighttime sky thanks to a special designation the park recently received.
On Jan. 15, the park was designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). It is one of 77 Dark Sky Parks internationally, one of 56 in the United States, and just the second such park in the state of Michigan. According to the IDA’s website, a Dark Sky Park is “a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.”
The designation was spearheaded by Cass County Parks and Recreation Board member Robert Parrish, who is also an advocate for the IDA. He said the process to get the park designated as a Dark Sky Park took almost two and a half years, along with a 63-page application, and will give people a place to go to enjoy the night sky.
“It's been a long process, frustrating at times, but now it's very rewarding,” Parrish said. “I feel like I've been walking on air for the last couple of weeks ever since I got the news.”
Parrish said he got the idea to go for the designation after visiting Headlands Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City, the only other Dark Sky Park in the state.
“I visited one of my daughters, who lives north of Petoskey, not far away from Headlands Dark Sky Park,” Parrish said. “When I went to the park and visited, I thought, 'this would be nice if we could do something like this at home.' I approached the park board at the time, and they told me to run with it and see what I could come up with.”
During the time he was working on the application, Parrish said two significant events happened in his life: him joining the Parks and Recreation board, and the passing of his father, who he dedicated the project to.
“My father loved looking at the stars, and he used to relate to me what it was like to see the Milky Way in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when he was in the Navy,” Parrish said. “So when he passed, I decided to move forward with the project in his memory.”
Parrish, along with Cass County Parks and Recreation Director Scott Wyman, said the park had to meet certain qualifications to meet the standards of being a Dark Sky Park. This included having to take light readings and make sure they are at a specific level, replacing outdoor lighting to meet color temperature standards, and make sure the light doesn’t shine above the “horizontal plane” of the sky. Wyman said the park has to have 100 percent compliance with the lighting standards within 10 years.
“For us, it wasn't that big of a deal other than the cost of doing it, because we don't have a tremendous amount of lighting, so we ended up partnering with the friends of the Cass County Parks, who helped us change out most of our lighting,” Wyman said. “We're not at 100 percent yet, but we're close.”
As of now, Wyman said, events that happen at the park will have a dark sky component to them. Over time, he said, there are grander aspirations for the park now that they have the designation.
“We're just taking baby steps right now, getting the word out, but we hope within two to three years, we move into organized camping or have some sort of a nature center or observatory with dark sky components,” Wyman said. “We'll start staying open later into the night for folks who want to stay around to come out and view the stars.”
Wyman said they’re looking to put a dark sky calendar on the park’s website as well as partnering with other individuals and organizations to buy telescopes to have on hand for people to use.
Parrish said a celebration of the Dark Sky Park recognition will occur during the Michigan Astronomical Society’s Star Party event, which is scheduled for April 24-26. He said there is currently an area behind a maintenance building in the park where the party will be held, but the board is currently looking into what other areas of the park would be best designated as dark sky areas.
In addition, Parrish said he is working on helping State Reps. Aaron Miller and Brad Paquette with House Bill 4740, which would officially designate the park as a Dark Sky Preserve in the state, in addition to the IDA’s recognition.
“I'm a firm believer that the beauty of Mother Nature does not have to end with the setting sun, it's just as beautiful at nighttime,” Parrish said.
Wyman said he’s excited for the park to be part of the IDA.
“We're excited to be part of the IDA,” Wyman said. “I always tell people we're proud to be stewards of the land, but now we're proud to be the stewards of the land and sky.”
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or firstname.lastname@example.org.