The Middle Fork River Forest Preserve has long been regarded as the best place in Champaign County to gaze upon the stars. But now that distinction has grown to greater heights.
The preserve in November was recognized as an International Dark Sky Park, the first such designation in the state of Illinois by the International Dark Sky Association. It was the culmination of a two-year effort by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District and the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society.
As a result, Middle Fork is drawing national – even international – interest and visitors for its special nighttime experience.
“There are people, even some who live in Champaign-Urbana, who haven’t had a lot of opportunity — especially younger people — to experience what it is like to be under a star-filled sky,” said Mary Ellen Wuellner, executive director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. “You can be in Champaign-Urbana and see the Big Dipper and some of the brighter stars, but until you’ve had that experience where you’re standing in a place that is not bothered ambient light and can look up and see that, it’s kind of an awesome experience. We’re becoming such an urbanized community; (this) is an experience that everybody should have.”
Funded through private donations along with partners from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois, the CCFPD initiated a three-phase project to become compliant for the application of the designation. The first phase was to determine where lights could be eliminated at the preserve, where it could be reduced and what type of “dark sky compliant” lighting would need to be installed. For example, some lights needed to be fully shielded so that no light would be transmitted from the horizon of the fixture, only shining straight down and not to the side.
The second phase was making the lighting retrofits at a cost north of $20,000. “That was a fairly lengthy process because it isn’t inexpensive and there’s a fair amount of it on the roadways and the user areas” of a 1700-acre preserve, Wuellner said. “And we are just now 100 percent completed with making those retrofits.”
The third component was demonstration a commitment to public education around why the preserve decided to go through the process.
“(The education includes) the importance of nighttime darkness for nature, for energy efficiency, for human health and wellness, and for safety,” Wuellner said. “Although it seems counterintuitive, sometimes having the right kind of lighting, even if it’s less lighting, is more efficient and easier on the eyes, so it doesn’t create glare and prevents people from seeing at night. You have to commit to a certain amount of public education around this project, and that means holding both public events – like our Starwatch events, which we’ve held with the Champaign Urbana Astronomical Society for many years now – but also committing to some passive education through signage and interpretive posters and that sort of thing.”
Middle Fork is an ideal spot for a “dark park” because of its location in the northeast portion of the county, “pretty far away from urbanized areas,” Wuellner said. “You don’t see much ambient light from Champaign-Urbana once you get that far away from it. And Rantoul, which is the closest urbanized area, is still a pretty small community so it doesn’t put off that much additional light at night.”
C-U Astronomical Society members have enjoyed Middle Fork’s stargazing for years but the designation figures to open more avenues for people to explore. There are 68 dark sky parks in the world, and the ones in the United States include places like the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest and Joshua Tree National Park.
Which is why Wuellner has, in the past year or so, experienced “this thing called astro-tourism, which we did not even realize existed,” she said. “People will travel throughout the country and even the world to just go from dark sky park to dark sky park. It’s a real thing.”
And Champaign County residents can experience it right in our own back yard. To that end, Middle Fork on June 1 will feature its “unveiling celebration,” Wuellner said, with a variety of free activities that include, well, gazing at stars.
“With weather cooperating, I hope,” Wuellner said.