One evening in early April, Perry Sandstrom was talking with a friend on his front step in the Briar Hill neighborhood when two great horned owls flew by, about 10 feet overhead.
"It was amazing," he recalls. "If I hadn't been looking up, I'd never have seen them, because they are so silent when they fly."
It wasn't the first time Sandstrom had seen owls flying through his yard, which abuts the Southwest Commuter Path. But he's afraid it might be one of the last if the city moves forward with its plan to install 20-foot-tall LED light fixtures at intervals of a couple hundred feet from Breese Terrace to the Beltline. Currently, the only light comes from traditional halogen street lamps at the on/off ramps or at street intersections. That leaves four segments, each roughly a quarter-mile in length, in darkness.
All the better, say many neighbors and path users, for the owls, bats, coyotes and other creatures who live along the path and use it as much as humans do if not more so. Sandstrom and his neighbor, Jim Beal, have posted flyers, talked to path users about the natural features of the area, and set up a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Owlpath) featuring a video of "Silent Eddie," a barred owl who lives in a backyard along Gregory Street. They and other Briar Hill neighbors meet weekly (informally, on somebody's deck, over beer and wine) to discuss ways to rebrand the path as friendly to both wildlife and people. The idea that stuck came from one neighbor's yard sign: OWL (outdoors without lighting).
"We thought if we started calling it the "Owlpath," that would help remind people that it gets dark here at night, and that's special," says Sandstrom. This place has nesting populations of at least three species of owl. There's a remnant of high-quality forest along the cemetery. Linear mounds and effigy mounds indicate that people were living up there for a long time without artificial light."
The Owlpath page describes the group as "dedicated to promoting safe use of one of the only remaining accessible dark-sky areas in Madison."
But "safe use" isn't possible without adequate lighting, says Tony Fernandez, the city traffic engineer who designed the path in 1999 from an abandoned west-side rail line.
"Our general policy on all paths is to want them lit. They are transportation arteries, and this project is part of the city's effort to increase the amount of trips by bike."
In 2001, when the Southwest Commuter Path went in, there was so much neighborhood opposition to turning the rail line into a multi-use path that the city caved instantly when a second fight, over lighting, seemed imminent. But engineers quietly went ahead and installed all the conduits, anticipating a time when the path would buzz with traffic, even after dark, and lighting would become not just optimal, but necessary. Now, says Fernandez, with the path averaging close to 2,000 riders every day, that time has come.
"The volume of traffic on the path is greater than we ever anticipated. [Lighting has] always been in the back of our minds as something we'd like to do. It came up again because the technology has improved and we can direct the light better. And we've had lots of requests from people."
Fernandez says the city hasn't done formal surveys (though some are planned), but anecdotes suggest that more women would use the path if it were lit.
"What we've heard from some women is that the Southwest Bike Path, after dark, is intimidating," says Fernandez.
Laura Kearney would agree with that. A runner and bike commuter, Kearney uses the path during the day, but at night she'd rather be on a city street, "just to have other people around." But she says lighting the path would not convince her to use it after dark. In fact, on her evening runs, she briefly crosses the path under one of the already-existing lights at the Virginia Terrace ramp. The pool of artificial light makes the surrounding shadows even darker.
"I don't see the point of putting lights on a path through neighborhoods, through an area that is a wildlife corridor," she says. "These folks are calling it an owl path. There's something very unique about that."
Ald. Sue Ellingson's district includes the segment of Gregory Street where neighbors would presumably be most affected by lighting installation. Some backyards sit 20 feet or more below the grade of the path, which means residents would be looking up into the artificial lighting, instead of dark treetops and starry skies.
"There are two concerns I'm hearing," says Ellingson. "One is that light would shine in backyards. The other is the loss of darkness in a natural area."
Ellingson says those in favor of the lighting, a smaller, less vocal number, are concerned about crashes, not crime or assaults. She and Ald. Brian Solomon, whose district is also affected by the proposal, met on May 30 with city officials to take a look at the city's second prototype. The first one, installed at the Council Crest ramp, drew criticism for its size and brightness. This new model, which will be installed this week on the bike path between Glenway and Sheldon streets, has a softer glow and custom louvers, to direct light downward.
Ellingson says the city is committed to finding out what most people want - and if that's darkness, then the project will be dropped. But surveys of path users, planned for later this month, might prove illuminating.
"It's not really known where all these users come from, and what they think of [the lighting project]," says Ellingson. "The city wants to hear from more than just neighbors."
Fernandez acknowledges that the project is "not a done deal by any means" and says the city is still taking public comments at: cityofmadison.com/bikemadison/planning/project.cfm?id=41.
Comments registered so far reveal strong opposition to the lighting plan, even among bikers.
"Have you ever ridden the trail after dusk in July when the sky is still a little purple and the air smells of grass and earth and flowers and the fireflies glitter in the brush along the edge of the trail? Or at a full moon when you don't even NEED a bike light to see where you're going? These are fantastic and unique commuting experiences to have in a city...that would be lost if the trail was lit with lights like those you are testing," one path user wrote.
The comments in favor are few, but plaintive. One user mentioned that unleashed dogs, icy patches and fallen branches combine with darkness to create the "hazardous nature of the path."
Jeff Klenk lives a block from the path with his wife, Nancy, and their two children. For many years, the Klenk family has taken night walks on the path "just to listen."
"We've heard barred owls hooting, finding each other in the dark. We sit on the slope of the cemetery when it's warm, and you can see really far, especially with a full moon."
Klenk thinks it's a shame the city isn't considering that there are others, besides bikers, who use the path in ways that aren't being considered. Including those who make the least noise of all.