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Let there be light

CROTCHED MOUNTAIN: It’s a complicated issue with some very clear implications

What I’ve discovered from the discourse over the past year as to whether or not the lights at Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride should be extinguished or capped, is how oblivious I was to the entire issue of light pollution and its supposed impact on my health or the night sky of the region within which I live. I could blame it on my age, but it is more likely the fact that I’m seldom out and about on a frigid winter night for the sole purpose of looking at the evening sky. Most times I’m much more apt to be curled up by the fire reading a good book or out with friends at our favorite tavern for great conversation and a drink by — you guessed it — the fire.

Please don’t misunderstand. I have kept up with the discussions on this issue, but it’s never been a “glaring” concern for me or many of the people I know who live near or on the mountain. It’s not that the majority of these friends, neighbors, and acquaintances can’t see the lights from their homes, because most can. I think it’s more likely that because we are all of a certain age and are early risers, we aren’t usually up that late that often for the lights at the mountain to become a nuisance or even more unlikely, a potential health problem.

The lights of Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride are visible from the west side of our home, but generally I’m not looking out the windows on a long winter’s night unless there’s a full moon or it’s snowing. When I am enjoying my view of the night sky and I don’t want to see the lights, I just look in the other direction. I haven’t even noticed that the sky glow from these lights interferes with my star gazing. Of course this might be because I’m not knowledgeable enough to miss the faintest of the stars with which it may be interfering.

As far as I can tell, the lights at Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride have had absolutely no continuous impact on my body’s ability to differentiate between night and day and thus for me personally, a full moon sheds much more illumination at night than the lights do during the winter. My “view” of the effects of the lights at Crotched Mountain may also be totally skewed by the fact that as a mom and grandmother of children and grandchildren who ski there when the sun goes down, I want the visibility to be excellent, and so I am more than willing to forego some of the faintest stars that I didn’t realize existed, and to pull my room darkening shades if they interfere with my sleep.

Selfish? Absolutely! But I make no apologies as this is a seasonal and high risk activity, For those who venture onto the slopes at night, I believe it is not asking too much of the rest of us to deal with the inconvenience for a few hours of what is ultimately a short season in exchange for the safety of those who ski, board, or work on the slopes at night — especially given the fact that ski resorts have been part of the landscape and fabric of Francestown since 1964.

A bit of background

In 1980, the original location of the Onset/Bobcat Mountain Ski Area, on which Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride is now located, merged with the “old” Crotched Mountain Ski Area, which was entirely located in Francestown. This “new” expanded ski area which came to be known as Crotched Mountain East and West provided many with hours of active and engaging outdoor recreation until the sad day when Crotched Mountain Ski Area closed its doors forever in 1989. For 13 years the buildings and equipment on both sides of the mountain were left to rot.

During those 13 years, there was continuous talk of one group or another reopening Crotched Mountain to skiing once again, but none came to fruition until 2002 when Peak Resorts bought and reopened Crotched Mountain West. Since 2003, and after spending millions of dollars to build a new lodge, cutting new trails, and installing state of the art snowmaking equipment and lifts, Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride has been “serving up snow” for those who love to ski and ride.

More recently, a new high-speed quad was installed, more terrain was added, and thus more equipment and lights were needed for the expanded portion of the mountain located in Francestown. And therein lies the controversy surrounding the lighting of this expanded area as it violates a town ordinance, but for at least one ZBA member there was “concern as to whether or not the Francestown Zoning Ordinance was designed to regulate lights at a ski mountain.” For all in the region who are impacted in one way or another by this continuing saga, we wonder how and when it will be resolved. But for me personally, that resolution should be about maintaining a balance and sharing our resources equitably and fairly, and I hope that it will not be resolved by an either/or decision.

Can light really be harmful?

Recently I attended a ZBA meeting to hear those who are on both sides of the issue, as well as those who will ultimately make the decision about the lights on the newly expanded area in our town. Of the four people who spoke against the variance, only one was an “abutter” who resides in Francestown. Another was from Stoddard, and it was he who introduced two members of the International Dark Sky Association from Massachusetts.

Dr. Mario Motta, a cardiologist and Director at Large for the International Dark Sky Association, stated that the impact from light pollution was not at all innocuous as was once believed. He went on to state that numerous studies suggest that light pollution raises the incidence of obesity, prostate and breast cancers, as well as other physical ailments. These statements concerned me, as I’m sure they did others in attendance at the meeting. But after having read the studies posted on the International Dark Sky Association website, I found that each study addresses the possible effects of continuous exposure to indoor artificial light in mice and what appears to be a statistically insignificant sampling of human subjects over increasingly longer periods of time and under increasingly higher concentrations of light than any of us will ever experience from the lights at Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride. Within the FAQ section of the IDA site, one specific question seemed relevant to the remarks made by Dr. Motta about potential health issues: “Is it true that light at night may be harmful to me?” The answer is as follows:

“Specific periods of light and dark known as circadian rhythms, are essential for good health for life on Earth, including humans. Health researchers have established that exposure to artificial light at night reduces the human body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that tells the body’s organs and systems that it is dark. Higher levels of melatonin slow growth of breast cancer tumors in women and may similarly affect other cancers, including prostate cancer. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for research on cancer has listed ‘shiftwork that involves circadian disruption’ among agents that are ‘probably carcinogenic to humans.’ The majority of exposure to high levels of artificial light at night comes from indoor sources, including television and computer screens. IDA recommends light days and dark nights to maintain an optimum circadian rhythm.”

Please don’t misunderstand, I am not trivializing the impact of light pollution and believe we would all benefit from quality lighting that minimizes the impact on our night sky and our lives. I also believe that further studies are essential to determine what effects, if any, light pollution may have on our health. But what I am suggesting is that the “agents” cited as possible causative factors in the human ailments mentioned above and at the ZBA meeting appear to have little if any bearing whatsoever on the impact of the lights utilized at CMS&R. The answer to the question posed on the IDA site solely addresses indoor lighting, shiftwork, and the effects of exposure to computer and television screens as potential causes of lower melatonin production. Therefore, one might infer that anyone who is indoors on a regular basis during the day or night under artificial light, who watches TV, uses a computer and/or other technological devices with screens, who reads a book by artificial light, and those who work the “night shift” may be at risk. Nothing I’ve researched or read on the IDA website suggests, or even includes, any evidence whatsoever about the potential health risks for employees and those who are skiing or riding under the lights, or those whose night sky is affected by the light trespass or skyglow when ski slopes are lighted to insure skier and/or employee safety.

Finding the right ‘experts’

J. Kelly Beatty, an astronomer and IDA Board of Directors Secretary, spoke of the impact on wildlife as well humans. He also stated that there were alternative lights to those currently used at the mountain which would decrease the negative effects and/or nuisance factor while still ensuring the safety of those who are on the mountain at night. But when listing examples of venues where these lights were utilized, to the best of my recollection none included ski slopes which as we know have unique characteristics to consider and are totally dissimilar to the lighting needs of a horizontal playing field, stadium, or parking lot.

After the meeting was closed to public discussion, the Zoning Board of Adjustment voted unanimously to hire Nancy Clanton, a lighting consultant with a long list of qualifications to her credit. Having an outside consultant knowledgeable about the lighting necessary to ensure visibility and skier safety will help the ZBA make an enlightened decision. I don’t pretend to understand this technology nor the jargon associated with it, and to be honest what I listened to at the meeting made my head spin.

Clanton, who is the founder and president of Clanton and Associates, certainly has a wealth of experience in lighting projects which “reflect her philosophy of sustainable design,” and for this I applaud her. But nowhere within the list of projects designed by her firm could I find any that included the illumination of the slopes of a ski resort which would help the ZBA wade through the daunting task of understanding the technical aspects and options of the lighting issue under study as it relates to the lighting at Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride. And this also raises the question as to whether or not there is alternative lighting available which better meets both the standard for visibility to ensure skier and employee safety, while at the same time reducing the visual impact on our evening sky. If this is true, it might potentially pose a problem for a lighting consultant who is also a member of the International Dark Sky Association whose mission is “to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through quality lighting.” Hopefully this can all be worked through by the lighting specialists involved to find the best lighting possible without compromising skier or employee safety.

I would like to make it clear that I am not demonizing the mission of the IDA, nor am I questioning the integrity of the ZBA, the proposed lighting consultant, or her firm’s credentials. What does concern me is whether or not some of the criteria utilized for hiring Clanton and Associates assures that the ZBA has selected the best possible candidate for the job. Hiring any consulting firm for a second opinion, based in part because it was the only one which responded to the inquiries made by the ZBA, might not provide the best fit. And if I missed a project which would make this firm a perfect fit, please feel free to correct me. But to the best of my recollection, when asked at the meeting if this potential candidate did have experience with the issue which is before the ZBA, the chairman was uncertain; and he also stated he had a living to make and thus didn’t have as much time as he’d like to continue to research other potential candidates.

Weighing the concerns

Light pollution is a very real concern in the urban areas on our planet. Those of us who live in this rural area want to protect our night sky so we may all appreciate its beauty. But, due to the rural nature of our region and the amazing success of conservation groups, there are many thousands of acres in our town and region for the public to enjoy that more than offset the minimal impact the lights our ski areas create for a very few months out of the year. I am not minimizing the inconvenience that the lights may pose for some, but is this nuisance factor enough to deny CMS&R a variance? I’m also not suggesting that a consultant for the ZBA is unnecessary, but I am suggesting that any outside lighting consultant should be carefully vetted to ensure there is no bias and is solely based on his or her credentials as an expert in the field of lighting technology as it pertains to safely utilizing the slopes of a ski resort at night, and not because he or she was the only person who answered the call. Because as we all know, the decision rendered by the ZBA regarding the lighting specific to the slopes of CMS&R will have far reaching and multiple consequences for many who live here in town and throughout the region.

Those of us who enjoy nature have some of the prettiest terrain available without even leaving town; and those of us who love to ski and ride enjoy having a local ski resort once again. The northeast side of our dear old mountain and the original site of Crotched Mountain Ski Area is now largely reclaimed and owned by Francestown. Our Town Forest provides a wonderful system of trails used year round by those who like to hike, mountain bike, cross country ski, snowshoe, and a number of other different activities for the public to enjoy while communing with nature at its best and most pristine. We who love the outdoors no matter what the season or the venue are blessed with the best of both possible worlds. We should be able to coexist without fearing that the sky is going to fall or that our night sky is going to be compromised permanently due to additional lights during a very short season.

Much of our landscape is not compromised in any way, shape, or form for an extended period of time because of the lights of CMS&R. And we need not worry that the variance will set a precedent as it is unique to the specifications necessary for safely lighting the slopes for night skiing and mountain maintenance. Rather, a variance if granted by the ZBA will help ensure the balance required to provide alternative activities which get us outdoors at night during the winter, while also providing the added health benefit of being away from all that technology for a while.

Our town and region is absolutely and unequivocally enhanced by this ski resort which has added to the quality of life for many of our residents. Skiing has been part of the culture of Francestown for close to 50 years. I would hope that those who choose one form of recreation over another, aren’t going to deny those who enjoy the slopes of Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride their short season under the lights. For many who ski & ride, it is the only time they are able to utilize these facilities, and for the rest of us who are lucky enough to be able to ski during the day, it helps keep our grand old mountain open.

Sooooo. . . Shades of Chicken Little’s, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling?” A serious health risk due to light pollution? Or much ado about nothing? Whatever decision is ultimately made, let’s be sure that the discourse prior to it consists of common courtesy as well as pertinent and factual information specific to the issue before the ZBA, i.e. selecting the best lighting options available to keep our slopes safely lit for night skiing, riding, and maintenance, while minimizing the effects as much as possible for those directly impacted. And let us be sure that we keep an open mind prior to making a decision, because minds which are open to the possibility that there is a place in our landscape for all to enjoy both a pristine night sky, as well as one illuminated by the lights of Crotched Mountain Ski & Ride, are essential if we are to resolve this issue fairly.

Deb McGrath lives in Francestown.

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