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Star light, star bright

By the lights of Maori astronomy expert Professor Rangi Matamua, “There is not a person on this planet who does not descend from someone who looked up at the night sky, searching for answers.”

Thanks to half a decade of advocacy by a small group of local volunteers, seeking answers in the stars will be preserved in Wairarapa for generations to come, now that the International Dark-Sky Association [IDA] has finally granted the region Dark Sky Reserve status.

The IDA confirmed this week that South Wairarapa and Carterton districts will join the ranks of 20 other accredited reserves worldwide, becoming the second reserve in New Zealand after Aoraki-McKenzie.

Those who campaigned for Wairarapa’s dark sky believe the accreditation will be an economic and conservation boon for the region, and also strengthen New Zealand’s reputation as a world leader in dark sky development.

“We are thrilled to be granted kaitiaki [guardianship] status for our sparkling dark skies by the international body,” Wairarapa Dark Sky Association [WDSA] chair Viv Napier said.

“We know there are massive environmental and social benefits from reducing the scatter of light.

“There are also significant environmental and economic benefits, with our international status opening up huge opportunities for tourism.”

Wairarapa Dark Sky Reserve will cover a combined area of 3665 square kilometres and could expand in future to include Masterton.

The IDA said the site, with Aorangi Forest Park at its core, was surrounded by enduring protection from light encroachment because of its bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Remutaka and Tararua ranges.

WDSA committee member Dr Tom Love said it is a relief to be granted accreditation after five years of back and forth with the IDA.

“There is a lot of regulatory and legal complexity. You have rules and regulations for how future lighting can be developed to limit light pollution.

Because we share a Combined District Plan in Wairarapa, it was easier to take on a bigger area, across multiple councils, and make changes. It is quite a big deal.”

Love said the importance of the protection status goes beyond astronomy enthusiasts, citing a growing body of research on the negative effects of light pollution and the need for alternating darkness and daylight.

“It’s increasingly clear that, just as artificial light can disturb natural rhythms in animals, the same applies to humans. It has a detrimental effect on our health.

“Also, the majority of our native species are nocturnal. The kiwi is an obvious one, but we also have tuna [eel], a nocturnal fish.”

Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and member of Aoraki-McKenzie Dark Sky Reserve John Hearnshaw said Wairarapa can expect a tourism boom akin to Tekapo.

“Word is spreading that New Zealand is the place to come to see the stars. And the more dark skies that have accreditation, the greater the reputation of this country as a leader in astrotourism.”

Hearnshaw said since Aoraki-McKenzie was granted reserve status in 2012, the region has enjoyed an economic injection of close to a million dollars a day.

“Stats NZ figures for the number of visitor nights in the district showed an annual spend of $112 million between 2004 and 2012.

“Then we created the dark sky reserve, and we had $360m per year until the pandemic came.”

Destination Wairarapa said accreditation is a great win for the region, and general manager Anna Neilson noted it will greatly enhance the future of astrotourism.

“Our vision is to grow strong cultural aspects to the dark skies sanctuary,” she said. “In time, we would like to draw upon the unique Wairarapa perspective of Matariki and share local stories about our region.”

Wairarapa’s reserve status goes a long way to preserving dark skies for future generations and revitalising almost forgotten traditions, Matamua said

“Wairarapa has one of the most famous Maori experts, Te Matorohanga, who wrote extensively about astronomy. That knowledge was very much practised and existed in the region.

“And we’re now finding avenues to support a resurgence.”

Matamua said over half of the world’s population cannot see the stars at night because of smoke and light pollution, and yet everyone descended from stargazers.

“It is a fundamental part of what it means to be human, to belong, and be part of a culture.

“Every person in this country has an association with the night sky, and that is the holy grail.

“We want our children and grandchildren to grow up in a country where that is a part of their life.”

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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