The southern Milky Way graces the night skies over Wai-iti, near Wakefield - the home of New Zealand's first Dark Sky Park. Photo: Darkskies.nz

Wai-iti Reserve to be New Zealand’s first Dark Sky Park

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Ralph Bradley was a 10-year-old in Golden Bay when he went outside in the early hours of a morning with his father, and saw his first aurora.

He has been hooked on the night sky ever since.

Now retired, Bradley has helped drive development of the country’s first official Dark Sky Park opened near Nelson last weekend with special star parties on Saturday and Sunday night.

The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) has recently accredited Wai-iti Recreation Reserve and Tunnicliff Forest with the status.

Bradley, who chaired the Top of the South Dark Sky committee, said he was thrilled the park had received international designation, when his wish had seemed light years away.

“We formed the committee about five-and-a-half years ago with the idea initially of seeing if we could create a Dark Sky area somewhere in the top of the South Island.

“We settled on a little park just five kilometres out of Wakefield.”

IDA executive director Ruskin Hartley said the achievement was testament to the persistence of those involved in the years-long nomination, which meant Waiiti was now protected for current and future generations of New Zealanders.

He described such places as important for teaching communities about the importance of the night sky for all who shared the environment, including humans, animals and plants.

The Wai-iti Recreation Reserve was about 30km south of Nelson city.

Bradley said the committee, supported by the Nelson Science Society Astronomy Section, had worked with the Tasman District Council to create a Memorandum of Understanding that freed up the 135-hectare reserve and forestry area to be designated as a Dark Sky Park.

Network Tasman and Nelson Forest & Bird had also contributed to allowing the project to go ahead.

The park now added to the list the number of accredited Dark Sky venues in New Zealand, including the existing and much larger reserves and sanctuaries at AorakiMackenzie, Stewart Island/Rakiura and Aotea/Great Barrier.

Bradley said the difference between the sanctuaries and what now existed in Tasman was the size of the area.

“A Dark Sky Reserve needs to be at least 700 square kilometres – it’s a much larger area, and the next designation down is Dark Sky Park.”

He said the area was chosen for the lack of artificial light infiltration.

Accreditation relies on efforts to prove scientifically, by measuring light, that a location meets a level of high-quality darkness.

He says that Dark Sky Park designation is also important for protecting the night against the ingress of light pollution.

“We really want to raise awareness in the public about the insidious creep of light into the night, how it causes harm to ourselves and our environment and how light pollution is currently growing faster than population growth.”

The Nelson Institute will host Ralph Bradley on Sunday, August 2 at the Nelson Library, 2pm.