Important distinctions exist between the designations given to various places in the world deemed as high quality places for viewing the stars. In general, the greatest difference is between places, on the one hand, certified for the quality of their skies for astronomical observation, which receive a "Starlight" designation, and, on the other hand, places with really dark skies, which get some kind of 'Dark Sky" name. Dark skies, of course, generally lead to amazing views of the stars, and promotes abatement of light pollution.
Dark Sky designations come from either the International Dark Sky Association or The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.. According to the United States-based Association, its Dark Sky Places program "promotes preservation and protection of night skies across the globe. Three types of areas compose the program: communities, parks, and reserves." It claims to be "the only non-profit organization fighting to preserve the night."
This is not quite the case. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) has taken the lead in creating a strict certification process for dark sky places in that country. The RASC has developed formal guidelines and requirements for two types of light-restricted protected areas: Dark-Sky Preserves and Urban Star Parks. To achieve certification, RASC requires a program to "educate and promote the reduction of light pollution to the public and nearby municipalities." In addition, scientific measurements must demonstrate the darkness of night-time skies, including photography of sky glow and Sky Quality Metre (SQM) measurements.
The last organization to join this astronomical party is the Starlight Foundation, headquartered in Spain. Foundation Director Luis Martinez explained in an interview the Foundation's purpose and backing:
The Starlight Foundation is the body in charge of the operational management of the Starlight Initiative, providing human resources and means for its development and promotion.
The Starlight Initiative was launched in 2007 from a proposal of the IAC supported by UNESCO - MaB [Mand & Biosphere] Programme, UNWTO [UN World Tourism Organization], IAU [International Astronomical Union], and other international conventions such as UNEP-CMS, SCBD, and Ramsar Convention, and is designed as an international action in defense of the values associated with the night sky and the general right to observe the stars.
The final aim of this Initiative is to promote the importance of clear skies for the humankind, emphasizing and introducing the value of this endangered heritage for science, education, culture, technological development, nature conservation, and tourism.
The certifications for both Tourist Destination and Reserves is extremely strict, and subject to an on-site audit. Scientific measurements are taken not just of night sky darkness (using a Sky Quality Metre, like that used in RASC certifications), but also actual astronomical observation, with tests of Seeing and Transparency. Environment Canada explains what is meant by astronomical transparency:
Observing deep sky objects such as faint galaxies and nebulae requires excellent sky transparency. Astronomers evaluate sky transparency with the faintest star visible to the unaided eye. In semi-desertic regions such as Arizona, one can see stars as faint as faint as 6.5-7.2 magnitude. At mid-latitudes and in the more humid eastern regions. most of the time sky transparency is limited to the 5.5-6.5 range in the countryside. Sky transparency also varies with airmass type. With a humid airmass the transparency is reduced significantly.
The Starlight program's intentional focus on not just dark skies and lack of light pollution, but also sky quality, combined with its audit procedures, makes it the most comprehensive certification program in the world at the present time. It's emphasis on culture and tourism is also notable and praiseworthy. Given the Foundation's location, most of the Reserves and Tourist Destination thus far certified are on the Iberian Peninsula or in a Spanish-speaking country like Chile.
Acadian Skies & Mi'kmaq Lands is proud to be the first certified Starlight Destination and Reserve in North America, a process that took nearly two years to complete!
The result of the Reserve audit is below: