WESTCLIFFE- Tucked away between the Sangre de Cristo and Wet Mountain ranges in southern Colorado, the bordering towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff escape the bright lights of the Front Range.

The residents in these old mining towns view the night sky as a precious natural resource, and their efforts to protect and preserve it earned them international recognition.

In early March, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff were designated as Colorado's first International Dark Sky Community by the International Dark Sky Association, headquartered in Tucson, Ariz. There are currently seven Dark Sky communities in the United States and only nine in the world.

"We're quite proud of that," said Jim Bradburn, president of the local Dark Skies group in Westcliffe.

"Our purpose is to preserve the ability to see the stars in the night sky," Bradburn said. "If we can continue to see it, as we can here in Westcliffe [and] Silver Cliff, we have wonderful thing and it draws people here."

Towns like Westcliffe and Silver Cliff earned their designation based on "stringent outdoor light standards and innovative community outreach," according to a release from the International Dark Sky Association.

Both towns adopted ordinances that call for shielded lights that don't shine out at 90 degrees or higher.

"You can use a smaller light bulb, less wattage, to light the ground," Bradburn said. "You don't waste it all into the sky."

Wasted light would only spoil the view in these towns, where the landscape is as breathtaking as the nightscape.

By evening, the 14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristos turn to shadows and the dark skies above Westcliffe and Silver Cliff come alive. Just about everyone in town seems to appreciate the treasure of the dark skies.

"The stars my friend!" Brian Clince said with a big smile, standing outside the liquor store and motel he owns on Main Street. "Our night vistas are very nice here."

Down the street at the local bed and breakfast, stars appear to pop out of the sky. Venus shines so brightly, residents say it actually casts a shadow on some nights. And then there's the Milky Way.

"Not only do you see it, you actually feel you can reach up and touch it," said Westcliffe town trustee, John Johnston.

The dark skies in the Wet Mountain Valley draw stargazers and even amateur astronomers. Jim Bradburn is one of them.

The former architect designed the observatory that sits on his property just north of Westcliffe. Bradburn's telescope captures images from light years away and brings them into focus on a computer screen in his observatory.

"This is it for me," Bradburn said. "It's the best I'll ever get, but it's pretty good."

The view of the skies from town will soon be even better. Plans are in the works for a new observatory to be built on the bluff at the end of Main Street in Westcliffe.

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