Is New Zealand crazy? In 2012, New Zealand’s Aoraki Mackenzie community successfully applied to the IDA (International Dark Sky Association) to become an accredited dark sky reserve. Aoraki Mackensie is an inland region about 180km south-west of Christchurch, where large sheep stations have been the norm for more than a century. It is rugged, isolated and dominated by mountains and lakes. Today, Aoraki Mackenzie’s 4,300sq km dark reserve is the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, and just one of 18 in the world.

     IDA, the International Dark-Sky Association was set up in 1988, and runs a dark sky conservation programme that recognises the quality of the world’s dark skies, using a five-pronged certification system. Within the system, dark sky sanctuaries rank highest as the most remote and often darkest places in the world, followed by reserves, parks, communities and urban night sky places. To achieve IDA certification, a dark sky must meet a range of criteria, including protection from light pollution, accessibility to visitors and wide-ranging support from residents. I wrote a previous blog (September 20, 2021) on the origins and extent of this organization.           

     Two New Zealand communities, Great Barrier Island and Rakiura Stewart Island, have recently become IDA sanctuaries, with Wai-iti, a 135-hectare hunk of council land in Tasman District, obtaining certification as an IDA dark sky park. Another 20 New Zealand dark sky communities are looking to follow suit and gain some form of certification.

     In 2019, Steve Butler, the Dark Skies Group Director at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, daringly announced the country plans to become the world’s first dark sky nation. “It was more of an aspirational rather than a hard-and-fast goal,” he said. “The IDA doesn’t yet have an official dark sky nation designation. But when it does New Zealand will be first in line.” He added, “Are we obsessed as a people? Probably. We’re definitely uniquely advantaged. Look, Kiwis are an outdoor people with easy access to the natural dark skies of the Southern Hemisphere. Very few of us have grown up without being awed by New Zealand’s night skies, particularly those you see in national parks like Aoraki Mackenzie or Rakiura Stewart Island. Sure, not all of us know how to find the Southern Cross, but we’re a far cry from 80% of the world’s population who can’t even see the stars of the night sky.” The answer to “is New Zealand crazy” certainly appears to be a resounding “yes”.

     When the people of New Zealand were asked to comply with the IDA’s rigorous requirements to restrict outdoor lighting, and switch to low-powered yellow lighting in regions such as Aoraki Mackenzie and elsewhere, by-and-large they were up for it, Butler explained. It’s why Butler is confident even the country’s urban centres, over time, will find ways to limit artificial light spilling into natural areas and reduce light use generally. It’s also why more and more New Zealanders are joining the global chorus to save the world’s night skies. Is New Zealand crazy? Absolutely, but they are also a blueprint for the rest of us.

     Dark sky associations eager to achieve IDA status are sprouting from Kiwi townships like weeds. Local mayors are talking about changing national planning and building regulations to keep lighting low. Even government entities like Waka Kotahi, New Zealand transport agency, are looking to install IDI-compliant lighting on state highways that fall within dark sky areas.

     On 24 June 2022, thanks to a 2020 pre-election promise by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand will celebrate Makariki – the mid-winter constellation that marks the Māori New Year – as a public holiday, for the first time. About an hour before sunrise, people from all walks of life will come together, remember loved ones who have passed away, and look to the stars for hope and inspiration before sharing kai (food) and a hot cup of tea. For many, the revival of Matariki may be the country’s boldest, best expression of dark sky nationhood yet. Is New Zealand crazy? Yes, but sometimes being crazy is a requirement to achieve positive outcomes.

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