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Beaver Island named 20th Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world

The Milky Way soars over the Beaver Island State Wildlife Research Area International Dark Sky Sanctuary.
Cynthia Hector Johnson
The Milky Way soars over the Beaver Island State Wildlife Research Area International Dark Sky Sanctuary. (Photo: Cynthia Hector Johnson)

Lake Michigan’s largest island should be next on your list of places to visit.

Beaver Island was declared an international dark sky sanctuary Monday, making it one of the best places in the world to see the stars.

The designation comes from the advocacy group Dark Sky International, which aims to educate on the harms of artificial light pollution on humans and wildlife.

Michigan is home to other dark sky places like Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City and Keweenaw Dark Sky Park in the Upper Peninsula. But the “sanctuary” designation is reserved for the darkest and most remote areas of the world.

Beaver Island is one of only 20 dark sky sanctuaries on Earth, joining the likes of the Pitcairn Islands, New Zealand and Montana’s Medicine Rocks.

Source: Beaver Island State Wildlife Research Area Dark Sky Sanctuary

Cynthia Johnson lives on the island and served on the community’s Dark Sky Task Force, which was organized by the Beaver Island Chamber and the Beaver Island Association.

She said the application process took years to ensure the area complied with Dark Sky International’s standards for light pollution.

“There is hope that our sanctuary along with 19 other sanctuaries, and over 200 Dark Sky places in the world will help people recognize the critical need to reduce light pollution,” Johnson said. “This will save energy, and significantly improve the health of humans, wildlife and our planet.”

According to the National Wildlife Federation, artificial light can create barriers that fragment habitats.

“Many slow-flying bats, for example — including little brown, mouse-eared and long-eared bats — avoid feeding in or even passing through illuminated areas because it exposes them to predators such as owls and other birds of prey," according to the NWF website.

There is also research to suggest light pollution affects humans by disrupting our internal circadian clock.

According to an article in the National Library of Medicine, this can affect brain wave patterns, hormone production, cell regulation and other biological activities.

“We use the night sky to navigate, we use the night sky to orient and we have a whole human history that’s tied to the stories of the night sky,” said Amber Harrison, a program manager at Dark Sky International. “So, if we have too much light at night, then we are impacted negatively in all of those different areas.”

A snowy owl takes flight on Beaver Island.
Cynthia Hector Johnson
A snowy owl takes flight on Beaver Island. Dark skies can be beneficial to wildlife. (Photo: Cynthia Hector Johnson)

Harrison noted Beaver Island’s designation comes with perks.

Star chasers or “astrotourists” typically flood locations with Dark Sky International designation. The island provides excellent views of meteor showers, Northern Lights, the occasional comet, and rare Zodiacal light.

Night sky photographer Justin Miller said Beaver Island offers its own travel experience outside of stargazing.

“It’s also the history, the people,” Miller said. “It's its own unique hidden gem that offers many different things that the other [sanctuaries] can't.”

Located off the coast of Charlevoix County, Beaver Island is home to around 600 people and is only accessed by boat or plane. The community is also known for its Irish heritage, including its boisterous St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

The sanctuary contains 9,195.5 acres of the State Wildlife Research Area, owned and managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and 230 acres of land at Miller’s Marsh, owned by Central Michigan University and preserved for research.

Moving forward, Harrison said organizers will have to annually report efforts to mitigate light pollution. Night sky quality is illustrated and documented with broad spectrum night sky photography.

“The Dark Sky Sanctuary certification for Beaver Island is not just an accolade; it’s a commitment to preserving the natural beauty and nocturnal environment of our island,” said Peaine Township Supervisor Maria Dal Pra in a press release. “This recognition highlights the pristine condition of our night skies and underlines the importance of protecting our natural habitats and natural heritage for future generations.”

The main entrance of the sanctuary is on West Side Road and will be marked with signage. Entrance into the sanctuary is free.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.