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It sounds like a lofty goal: "dark-sky certified". Many towns and parks around the world have sought this accolade in recent years. For some it's a way of highlighting dark night skies that may help establish and sustain a local astrotourism industry. For others, achieving a dark-sky designation is an expression of community values. And in many places that seek this status, folks think it's just the right thing to do for the environment. But how hard is it to achieve, and what should individuals and organizations consider before committing to this goal?
Most places seeking accreditation for dark skies apply to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) through its International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) program. Of various recognition programs in existence, IDSP is probably the best known and its designations are most sought-after. Its reputation is built on a rigorous application process that gauges candidate sites against a strict set of program requirements. The bar is set very high, and for many applicants the process is arduous and intense. But for those willing to commit to success, very many of them will find what they're looking for.
Have you been thinking about applying to the IDSP program for recognition of your community or a park or similar protected area? Here are a few considerations to keep in mind as you decide whether to go for it.
It's often a big project
Some prospective IDSP applicants have in mind a very simple process: fill out a form, pay a fee, and wait for their award to show up in the post. What they find is often bewildering: extensive written program guidelines, the need to write a nomination document that can span over one hundred pages, and a detailed and critical evaluation process. The IDA program is difficult to complete by design, as it aims to recognize true excellence in the preservation and promotion of dark skies; the organization asks that applicants not only clear the bar, but leap well over it while establishing themselves as examples truly worthy of emulation. For some aspiring awardees the ask is just too much and they quickly decide that the program is not for them.
Those who decide to carry on after learning what successful IDSP nominations entail can expect a process that requires, on average, about one to two years to complete. More complicated cases can sometimes run for several years, especially where multiple land management agencies are involved or in cases where the democratic process must be engaged in order to enact outdoor lighting policies. Successful applicants tend to get organized early, and they apply basic project management practices to get (and keep) their nominations on track.
Pro tip: Understand the program guidelines as completely as possible before committing to participating in the IDSP. Ask questions of IDA staff if you don't understand how the requirements apply to your particular circumstances. And plan out a schedule from initial enquiry to application submission, with milestones along the way, to help keep you focused on tasks and deadlines.
There may be costs involved
Many prospective IDSP applicants ask how much it will cost to obtain a designation from IDA. Formally speaking, the only cost associated with participation in the program is a USD 250.00 fee that helps offset some of the program's cost to the organization. However, applicants may find that they need resources -- whether cash or in-kind -- in order to comply with the program requirements. In the case of complex nominations such as International Dark Sky Reserves, which often require several years to complete, applicants find that they benefit from paid staff or consultants to put full-time effort into completing applications. Funding these human resources often involves either seeking donations or grants from public or private sources and budgeting for expenses over the nomination period. In other instances, especially for uncomplicated nominations from smaller communities and parks, successful applications have been made on the basis of volunteer labor.
It's more often the case that expenses associated with IDA nominations are particularly associated with retrofits that must be made in order to bring site lighting into compliance with IDSP requirements. While some retrofits consist of simply changing lamps in existing fixtures, others involve complete replacement of fixtures. Costs then scale according to the size of the lighting stock and the initial compliance rate. Where this presents a barrier to receiving a designation, IDA offers a 'Provisional' designation that brings three additional years to achieve full compliance with a site's lighting plan. This allows the capital costs of retrofits to be distributed across more budget years, lowering the up-front cost of program participation.
Pro tip: Assess potential costs early and consider various funding sources that may provide resources to support IDSP nominations. In order to assess lighting retrofit costs, gather outdoor lighting inventory data soon after commencing a nomination effort and plan for how to amortize the costs of retrofits over multiple years during and beyond the nomination period.
It's an ongoing commitment even after the designation is received
When we think of awards, we usually imagine recognition that is offered once on the basis of past achievements. But IDSP designations are less like awards and more like labels that indicate adherence to some set of rules or standards. Over time the IDSP certification requirements change as we learn more about both light pollution and the best approaches to reducing it. While IDSPs are not required to meet the new requirements after receiving IDA accreditation, they are required to show that they continue to adhere to the standards that existed at the time of their designation. They show this in the form of annual reports required by IDA to be submitted to the organization in October of each year. This approach stands in place of formal recertification, and is the only requirement to maintain an IDSP designation once made.
In the annual reports, IDA expects to see not only evidence that a place continues to meet the basic eligibility requirements in effect at the time it was designated, but also that it continues to engage in the work of public outreach and education, and night sky quality monitoring. The reports may be brief and are not intended to require exceptional effort to complete, but they must be filed on time every year. Failure to do so can result in suspension of an IDSP designation, and unresolved suspensions can turn into permanent revocations. So while IDA represents that IDSP designations are given 'in perpetuity', it also makes clear that designations can be taken away for failing to adhere to the program requirements. Bear in mind, as well, that there may be some financial cost associated with generating annual reports for submission to IDA.
Pro tip: At the outset of a nomination process, think about who will carry forward the work required to maintain an IDSP nomination indefinitely into the future. That responsibility could be delegated to a local dark-sky committee, for instance. Or, for places like parks and protected areas, the responsibility may fall to managing agency staff. In cases where maintaining IDSP designations requires human or financial resources, consider what those costs may be and how to ensure that they are covered each year.
Does this still seem overwhelming? Successful IDSP nominations are the result of persistence and commitment, but expert advice can help overcome perceived obstacles. My years of experience in the IDSP program can benefit your nomination effort. Contact me today to find out how I can help you realize your goal of becoming an International Dark Sky Place.