TORRANCE BARRENS NIGHT SKY PRESERVING THE DARK
Article by Dianne Park Thach / Photography by Wesley Liikane
The excitement begins well after the sun sets for the day at Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Reserve. A total absence of light is needed to view the celestial sights visible.
The Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Reserve was designated as the world’s first permanent dark sky reserve in 1998, one year after the Barrens were declared a conservation reserve. Located just southeast of Bala, the Barrens stretch over 4,700 acres of Crown-protected land and feature ancient Precambrian bedrock and wetlands, scattered boulders and little soil.
The rare Eastern Bluebird, Cooper’s Hawk and Ontario’s only lizard – the five-lined skink – can also be spotted here. This landscape allows for stunning 360-degree views of the night sky for a stargazer at any level to enjoy.
Michael Silver played an integral role in getting the dark sky reserve designation for the Barrens and still remembers the reaction he got from Canadian astronomer and SkyNews magazine founder Terence Dickenson when he came for a viewing.
“It was so dark back then,” recalls Silver. “Dickenson said, ‘Let’s keep this a secret!’” Silver explained the goal was to make the reserve a public and cherished asset of Muskoka, and one that had to be preserved.
When you look into a dark sky, you see objects that are not only incredibly far away in distance, but also incredibly far away in time, explains Silver. The galaxy Andromeda can be spotted here by a sharp, naked eye. Other galaxies, nebula and star clusters can be viewed through a telescope. The northern lights (Aurora Borealis) can be spotted, here, on occasion.
The welcome sign at the reserve explains its purpose well, where one can “appreciate the immensity of time and space…” while standing on rock that is more than two billion years old. “I just find it fascinating to speculate what would be up there, what it would look like,” Silver says. “But it’s ironic – in an era of unprecedented gains and knowledge about our solar system and the universe because we have space probes, radio astronomy and physics, we’re losing the ability just to see it at night.”
Silver has been working passionately to keep things dark at the Barrens as light pollution from commercial developments in the neighbouring Town of Gravenhurst is a current threat.
“The challenge now is if we lose the night sky, we’ve lost it forever,” remarks Silver. As a member of the lighting committee during the planning stages of the Muskoka Wharf in Gravenhurst, Silver says the process went well and dark sky lighting was selected. There is minimal impact of light trespass; the lighting is subdued and only illuminates what you want illuminated, which is the ground. When the lights lining the main street of Gravenhurst were replaced, they also had the same features.
Without these lighting choices, sky glow (the effect that can be seen over many populated areas) would have been created, negatively affecting the view at the Barrens.
Like Silver, Township of Muskoka Lakes Mayor Don Furniss has also acknowledged the diminishing dark sky at the Barrens.
“The main issue impacting the Barrens night sky is the gradual increase in ambient night lighting because of the growth of the surrounding communities,” he says. “Many people are also unaware of the negative impact of powerful night lighting, significantly reducing our ability to view the cosmic beauty of the night sky.”
Silver says the commercial development at the south end of Gravenhurst is where dark sky lighting went “off the rails.” He was told by the town planner at the time that a site plan agreement for the development had a requirement of dark sky lighting and promises were made that it would be dark sky compliant. “The process went through and the lighting there was atrocious,” he says. “It’s over-lit, tremendously over-lit. There are too many lights and they’re too bright. It noticeably deteriorated the night sky, that single development.”
The Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association lobbied for bylaws in Gravenhurst as they felt the site plan agreement was not enforced and at the end of the lengthy process, Silver wanted to focus on one amendment to the dark sky bylaw that would define light pollution to include reflected light.
“You can have fixtures where the light luminaire is buried within the fixture as opposed to descending beneath it, shooting light in all directions,” he explains. “But if they’re so bright and there are so many of them, you can end up with a lighting travesty.”
The amendment was not approved and Silver says without this change, it could happen again with future developments. In 2016, he came to a “gentleman’s agreement” with a senior representative of the development owner and half of the lighting there has been turned off. “It’s made an incredible difference and has improved the dark sky, but it’s still over-lit, even with half of the lights off,” adds Silver.
Dark sky bylaws were not being enforced with other signage found around Gravenhurst, including the town’s welcome sign on Highway 11 going northbound which was lit from the bottom-up as opposed to from the top (which has since been changed) and commercial LED motion signs. Silver discovered that one particular LED motion sign was granted an exception by the District of Muskoka because it was within 400 metres of a district road.
“The night sky doesn’t draw distinctions with a sign that’s 400 metres from a district road or not,” he says.
In August 2017, Silver, who is a mediator and arbitrator, scheduled a deposition with Gravenhurst town council with support from a number of organizations such as the Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association, Muskoka Lakes Association, Muskoka Conservancy, the mayor of Muskoka Lakes, and a letter from the Ministry of Natural Resources. He also had a letter written by former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who introduced the dark sky bylaw in Arizona, and her husband Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut.
Silver felt he was met with hostility at the deposition.
“The central point of my presentation was that they had to do better and we need to realize this is cottage country, so in the same vein that we protect water quality, habitat or wildlife, we have to look at the dark sky in that regard,” he says.
The reserve is a good thing for Muskoka, he adds. Other recreational, resort-oriented communities like Cape Cod, Mass. or Hilton Head Island, South Carolina have better controlled lighting than Gravenhurst does. Silver believes making a change to help preserve the dark sky at the Barrens is still possible.
“The reason I’m so charged about it is that it’s not too late,” he says. “We’re right on the cusp – if we don’t do anything and there are a couple more developments that aren’t compliant, it’ll be gone.”
Change could start with memorializing current agreements in writing, he says, making it legal. Even more lights could be reduced without affecting safety. The town’s dark sky bylaw could be amended to mimic the one the Township of Muskoka Lakes passed, which identifies reflective light as part of light pollution.
If the town wants to look the part of being located near a dark sky reserve, regulations need to be enforced so that when people see the muted lighting they’ll be more inclined to comply. Silver says there should also be more promotion of the reserve.
Mayor Furniss believes people should care about preserving the dark sky because most are now living in cities, which obstruct and obscure the beauty of the night sky with ambient lighting and smog.
“There are very few places like the Barrens that are close to the GTA that provide people with the opportunity to view the wonders of our universe though clear air with minimal background light,” Furniss says. “It also provides a great venue for amateur astronomers to set up telescopes to photograph the heavens and share their knowledge with other visitors to the Barrens.”
As the reserve is located in between the Township of Muskoka Lakes and the Town of Gravenhurst, both municipal councils say they have been putting plans in place to help save the dark skies. Muskoka Lakes passed a dark sky bylaw in 2014 that requires all new construction to install dark sky-compliant exterior lighting and all those who do not currently have dark sky-compliant lights must replace them by year 2024.
Just recently, they updated their sign bylaw to make significant improvements to backlight, LED, fluorescent and animated signage to minimize light pollution. They have also limited the hours of operation of these signs.
Katie Kirton, Town of Gravenhurst’s manager of planning services and staff liaison to the Gravenhurst Environmental Advisory Committee (GEAC), says the Town has passed a dark sky bylaw that requires all new exterior lighting to be full cut-off fixtures to reduce upward light trespass.
“The Town’s Official Plan, which is the document that guides development in the town over a 20-year horizon, contains policies supportive of dark sky lighting for all development and requires a detailed lighting plan when large developments are proposed,” she explains. Kirton adds, the GEAC has created a lighting display with examples of full cut-off fixtures, which can be found at the town office.
“The committee has been active in educating residents and lighting retailers on the benefits of preserving the night sky,” says Kirton.
Silver owns property on Clear Lake in Torrance and is a fifth-generation cottage resident of Muskoka, hiking and blueberry-picking in the Barrens since he was a boy. The Barrens always struck him as an area that looked different from the rest of Muskoka, with a different feel to it. Silver says we should care about preserving the dark sky at the Barrens and at the same time, cottage country.
“Thousands of people love Muskoka and they want to keep loving it,” Silver says. “And if you care about something, you have to be committed to protecting it.”