Dark sky sanctuary a work in progress in Washington County

Posted Jan. 21, 2012, at 1:05 p.m.

STEUBEN, Maine — Down East Maine’s coastline between Hancock County’s Frenchman Bay and Washington County’s Cobscook Bay offers one natural resource not found anywhere else along the thousands of Atlantic seaboard miles that stretch between Maine and the Florida Keys: Dark skies.

On a clear, cold and moonless night it’s possible to read a newspaper under the light of the Milky Way as it shimmers above the Down East coastline. As light-polluting cities, towns and villages are few and far between along the Atlantic seaboard’s last undeveloped stretch of coastline, streaking meteors — weather permitting — are an every-night phenomena, and the northern lights — when they shimmer and glow — seem close enough to touch.

“Having dark skies is one of the special things about areas of the Maine seaboard that have not been highly developed, making them a high-quality natural environment,” said Peter Lord, president of the new Astronomy Institute of Maine. “If you look at the entire Eastern seaboard, all you see is coastal development, which hasn’t happened here in a big way.”

Lord’s efforts to preserve Maine’s dark skies are now headquartered in Steuben on a dark and secluded hillside within the Washington County campus of the Humboldt Field Research Institute of the Eagle Hill Foundation.

The new institute represents an expansion and relocation of the Island Astronomy Institute, which Lord has headed up for the past eight years on Mount Desert Island. Relocating to Steuben will prompt construction of a new observatory that will take advantage of a 360-degree hilltop vista. Also on the drawing boards is a “virtual universe” planetarium.

The new facility is a work in progress that will allow Lord to undertake his efforts to educate the public about the value of dark skies on a larger scale, he said. “It’s an opportunity of place, in terms of providing access to high-quality sky,” he said. “It’s a chance to make the most of this natural environment. Beyond telescopes, it’s a place where people can come and stand and take in all this natural beauty.”

Lord said that the institute will provide a setting for events associated with the annual Maine Starlight Festival and its mix of activities that each summer attract astronomy buffs from throughout Maine and other states. He expects, too, that the secluded 160-acre location will boost eco-tourism opportunities for the region.

“People come to Maine for quality of place, in terms of things like hiking or kayaking opportunities,” he said. “Having access to a stunning night sky is a natural and intelligent addition to all the other natural environments that Maine has to offer. Among the challenges we face is that even people who have always had access to dark skies don’t recognize its importance. Just as people need light, people need dark.”

Beyond being an after-dark destination for casual stargazers, the Steuben field campus offers meeting, lodging and dining facilities that can accommodate extended stays. “People come here to study in very serious ways the natural world, and the sky is a very important element of that,” Lord said.

The Eagle Hill Foundation’s access to scientific journal, Lord said, will allow publication of research findings related to the biology of light and to new technologies designed to minimize light pollution, even in highly populated areas already coping with urban sprawl.

“I think that confronting an issue like light pollution requires education, education, education,” he said. “It’s a matter of informing people, not telling them what to do.”

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