Boundary Waters becomes Minnesota’s first 'Dark Sky Sanctuary'

Voyageurs National Park could be next for dark sky certfication.

The aurora borealis and stars shine over Little John Lake in the BWCAW. The federal widlerness this week received official certificaton as an Interntional Dark Sky Sanctuary, the first in Minnesota. ( Photo courtesy Richard Hoeg at )

Anyone who has camped in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness knows that looking up into an unimpeded night sky is one of the joys of the trip, whether it's to see the Milky Way, the Big Dipper or the aurora borealis.

Now, the International Dark Sky Association has declared the BWCAW a certified International Dark Sky Sanctuary, the first one in Minnesota and only the 13th in the world.

At just over 1 million acres, the federal wilderness — part of the Superior National Forest — is the largest Dark Sky Sanctuary to date.

A cold, clear January night revealed bright stars over Snowbank Lake in the BWCAW in this 2014 photo. The Boundary Waters has been certified as an official Dark Sky Sanctuary because it is mostly unaffected by human-caused light pollution. Steve Kuchera / News Tribune


The International Dark Sky Association is a nonprofit organization founded in 1988 with the goal of reducing light pollution and protecting night skies for the present and into the future. A Dark Sky Sanctuary is “public or private land that has an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural or educational value, its cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment.”

“Experiencing the night sky provides perspective, inspiration and leads us to reflect on our humanity and place in the universe,’’ the association noted in making the announcement this week. “The history of scientific discovery and even human curiosity itself is indebted to the natural night sky.”

The effort to certify the BWCAW has been underway since 2008. Far from any major city or development, most of the BWCAW is beyond the glow of outdoor lighting that “pollutes” the sky in most populated parts of the state, nation and world.

According to National Geographic, 80% of Americans now can’t view the Milky Way from their homes due to light pollution. Some researchers worry that humans around the globe are losing access to the scientific, philosophical and spiritual benefits of appreciating a dark sky blanketed by stars.

“We are excited to receive the Dark Skies Sanctuary designation for the BWCAW and are committed to preserving dark sky opportunities for future generations,’’ Connie Cummins, supervisor of the Superior National Forest, said in a statement.

Night gives way to dawn over Lac La Croix in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The million-acre wilderness has been named an official Dark Sky Sanctuary, the first in Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Sam Cook)

Ann Schwaller, BWCAW program manager for the Superior National Forest, said existing laws and regulations that dictate management of the wilderness already lead “to the protection of the night skies for scientific, natural, educational, cultural and public enjoyment values, which are all part of protecting wilderness character."


The Voyageurs National Park Association, a nonprofit group that promotes Minnesota's only national park, has also applied for formal Dark Sky Sanctuary certification for the park and hopes to receive the official status by year's end.

For more information on the International Dark Sky Association, go to .

Shining stars and the aurora borealis over the Island River in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in the area of the 2011 Pagami Creek fire near Isabella Lake. The Boundary Waters has been named an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. (Photo courtesy of Richard Hoeg at

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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