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International recognition sought for island’s unique dark skies.

After a six month preparation process and about two years from the first glimmer of the idea, the Beaver Island Dark Sky Project working through the island’s Chamber of Commerce and Beaver Island Association, has filed an application with the International Dark Skies Association (IDA) for recognition of about a third of the island as a Dark Sky Sanctuary.  Chamber President Paul Cole, who helped lead the effort, says the idea got its start with Bill Markey and Dick McEvoy after a dark sky presentation to summer visitors. “The idea bounced around for a bit and then late this summer we organized a small group to get the application done,” he said.  The proposed sanctuary lands encompass part of a Michigan DNR Wildlife Division research area on the island.  “We got in touch with the DNR and discussed the value to the island of the designation and our mutual interest in preserving the natural dark skies in the research area as well as the rest of the island. They quickly offered their support.” The Sanctuary is planned to include a research area managed by Central Michigan University, which has a classroom and research facilities on the island, as well as the newly established Beaver Head Light House Park, which is owned by Charlevoix County. 

The IDA seeks to protect dark skies for future generations. Dark skies are important for more than the opportunity to view the stars, planets and other celestial displays.  They are also important for the environment—for the health of plants and animals (including humans). Dark sky efforts also promote energy conservation and help protect our heritage. Certification of a location by the IDA can also result in new visitors seeking better views of the night sky. For the island, that presents a dual opportunity: protecting an important natural asset while at the same time promoting visits to the island to enjoy it.

All in, the sanctuary will encompass more than 12,000 acres and offer numerous remote viewing areas where the only light at night comes from the heavens above.  Long-time island resident Bill Markey got the project started and scouted out many of the sites. “According to the readings I’ve taken, the island has some of the darkest skies to be found in the eastern United States. Visitors are often taken aback when they look up and see the Milky Way stretching across the night sky. Most folks have never seen it.  Out here you can see it on any clear night.”

The filing was a community effort. The Beaver Island Association, the island’s NGO that represents members interested in economic and environmental sustainability, and the island’s Chamber agreed to support the application.  Cynthia Johnson, editor and owner of the island’s monthly newspaper, agreed to be the chief point of contact with the IDA and organized preparation of the application.  She got help from a cross section of islanders interested in the night sky and promoting the island. BIA president Kevin Boyle says the project squarely matches his groups goals. “Protecting the beautiful nighttime views of the universe while at the same time promoting them lines up squarely with our mission statement,” he said. “When Paul and I looked at this with Bill, the potential benefits of an IDA designation were just too good to pass up.  The island’s natural beauty is one of its greatest assets. This project protects that beauty while at the same time helping us promote it as a reason to visit the island to enjoy it.”

Johnson also got help from Dick Mulvihill, a lifelong sailor and 25+ time participant in the annual Chicago Yacht Club Mac Race. “Sailors get to see night skies that most do not, but the skies around the Beaver Island are uniquely dark in the Great Lakes—and uniquely accessible. You have to go up to Lake Superior to find an equal expanse of dark skies.” Brian Vaeth and Maria Dal Pra also jumped in to help.  They operate the Beaver Island Retreat, a glamping experience close to the north end of the planned sanctuary. “Our guests are routinely awestruck when they look up at night.  Our tents seem to float in a sea of darkness. Promoting and protecting our night skies is a perfect goal for us,” says Dal Pra. Pam Grassmick and Steve Radionoff also helped with the application.  Pam grew up on the island and has spent years working to protect its natural resources. “I’ve experienced our night skies since I was a little girl on the island,” said Grassmick. “They still amaze me when I look up.” Radionoff is a relative newcomer to the island, having arrived just over a year ago to live full time. “Every clear night is a spectacular show overhead,” he says.

IDA representatives have told Johnson that processing the application could take up to 18 months. “We hope it will go along more quickly,” she says, “but it’s not like you have to wait for the application to be approved to enjoy the island’s night skies.  They put on a show every night right now.” Chamber leader Cole says the sky show isn’t the only thing to see. “The island is a nature lover’s paradise,” he says. “We have miles of deserted beach to roam, organized birding and kayak trails, plenty of plants that you’ll be hard pressed to find any place else—plus plenty of creature comforts to enjoy.  Come see us.  You’ll marvel at more than the stars.”

A copy of the application can be downloaded from this link. You can learn more about the Beaver Island Dark Sky Sanctuary at Plan your trip to the island at

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