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The quest to save West Texas’ dark night skies

The headlights sliced through the cool September night. Developer Gil Bartee and two clients, an orthopedic surgeon and his wife from Mexico City, excitedly watched for wildlife as they drove toward Sierra la Rana, a dark-sky-friendly community being built just outside Alpine.

Bartee pulled the couple up to the 12-acre tract they’d purchased two days earlier. He shut off the headlights, and the trio stepped out of Bartee’s sport-utility vehicle and into desert darkness. The jet-black sky burst open like a sparkler, filling their eyes with wonder: countless stars, the Big Dipper, Mars, Venus, fast-moving satellites, the Pleiades—or Seven Sisters—star cluster, the sliver of a moon.

The woman said she’d never witnessed such a majestic night sky in Mexico City, a metropolis ablaze with outdoor lights that suffocate the stars. But here in far West Texas, where astronomers, researchers and environmentalists are fighting to preserve some of the darkest skies in the world, she was astounded at many celestial objects her naked eyes could see.

Yet one thing puzzled her. What, the woman asked Bartee, as they craned their necks, is that cloud in the sky? Bartee grinned. That, he replied with all the pride of Galileo discovering that our galaxy holds billions of stars, is the Milky Way.

The woman stared in disbelief before exclaiming: “Magnifico!”

Constellation of Stars

We Texans can thank our lucky stars: We’re blessed with far West Texas and the Big Bend region, where infrequent cloud cover, low humidity, limited air pollution and scant urban sprawl create an astral feast for the eyes.

Binoculars, telescopes, naked eye, it doesn’t matter. Night in and night out, whether you’re standing, sitting or lying on a blanket beneath a clear sky, you’ll thrill to the sensation of swimming in a pitch-black sea of stars.

Yet even in this idyllic setting, where the night skies are so pristine it’s like being inside a planetarium, light pollution is creeping in. At the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, which boasts the darkest night skies of any astronomical research observatory in the continental U.S., visitors can often see the glow of El Paso some 160 miles to the west with no visual aid.

In the quest to save the night from artificial light, West Texas has assembled one of the world’s brightest constellations of dark-sky advocates, starring:

• McDonald Observatory veteran astronomer Bill Wren, the ambassador of dark skies across the Lone Star State, who never veers off point: Light source isn’t the critical issue—what matters is where the light goes when it leaves the fixture. Well-designed, or shielded, fixtures efficiently shine light downward—not wastefully, into the sky—saving money and energy and improving visibility.

• Lisa Turecek, a supervisor at Big Bend National Park who pushed a groundbreaking outdoor lighting control project into place—making what some astronomers consider the nation’s darkest park even darker. Through the project, which earned Turecek a natural resource stewardship award from the National Park Service, Big Bend is seeing astronomical decreases in electric bills.

• And Bartee, a never-sit-still amateur astronomer and night-sky entrepreneur who sees West Texas’ twinkling stars as diamonds in the rough spurring economic development and tourism across the region.

While West Texas’ dark-sky movement is picking up speed like a meteor shower, the battle against light pollution is not unique to this area. The world’s first comprehensive outdoor lighting control ordinance was enacted in 1970 in Tucson, Arizona, home of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) that was co-founded in 1988 by Wren’s mentor, David Crawford.

Research from the international association and other organizations, including the American Medical Association, shine a warning light on the hazards of light pollution: Excessive artificial light disrupts circadian rhythms—the 24-hour biological clock that regulates the cadence of our lives—jeopardizing not only the health of humans, but putting the lives of nocturnal animals at risk. The brightening of the atmosphere is hindering astronomical science. And the U.S. alone, dark-sky advocates say, is wasting more than $2 billion annually in energy costs.

The more we plug in, the more we’re disconnecting from one of the world’s most awe-inspiring natural resources—the night sky. So the IDA’s philosophy is simple: Light what you need, when you need it.

It’s an idea espoused by Wren, the McDonald Observatory’s special assistant to the superintendent. For 20 years now, he has led the dark-sky charge across Texas and beyond, convincing city leaders, business owners and even officials at the Reeves County Detention Center outside Pecos that they’ll see huge benefits by retrofitting their lights.

The 55-year-old Wren, a man of slight build and soft voice, says he was evangelized by the now-79-year-old Crawford, who so inspired people throughout his IDA career that they often exclaimed, “I’ve been Daved!”

Now, Wren, in turn—whom one fellow astronomer affectionately calls the Godfather of Dark Skies—evangelizes others, never preaching, but spreading the gospel of light: Less is more.

What that means is this: Shielded, or full cut-off, fixtures prevent light from spraying above the fixture’s horizontal plane and into the sky. Combining full cut-off fixtures with lower-wattage lighting can yield the same amount of illumination for about half the electricity cost, Wren says.

Wren says he never uses the emotionally charged term “light pollution.” The biggest fear he has to overcome, Wren says, is that people think he wants “to chain myself to the nearest lamp post and never let them turn it on.”

Instead, after reassuring governmental bodies that he really does want them to have lights, Wren cuts straight to cost and energy savings—music to the ears of any city council trying to balance a budget.

And he hits the public safety angle: Research indicates that glare from overly bright lights, such as security lights, can actually impair vision and make shadows appear darker. “You can show people something and watch the lightbulb go on over their head,” Wren says.

Blinded by the Light

For most urban dwellers, stars are exotic creatures on the brink of extinction. They know they’re up there. They just can’t see them.

A century ago, even as scientists tinkered with lightbulb improvements, the world was still virtually dark at night. But through the decades, with the commercialization of electricity, cities grew brighter—nightlife, literally, became part of our vernacular.

Clearly, we have the ability to turn night into day. But in doing so, dark-sky advocates warn, we’re losing our way. Ancient civilizations worshipped the stars. Explorers and sailors found their way by navigating the night sky. Prehistoric Native Americans plotted their daily lives by the movements of the stars, sun and moon. As Scripture describes, the star of Bethlehem led the three wise men to the baby Jesus.

Now, we’re just all trying to get some rest. Think about it: When’s the last time you slept in total darkness, away from the alarm clock’s glowing digital numbers or the neighbor’s security light pouring in through the bedroom window?

Forget about searching the night sky for our solar system. We’re trapped inside a glaringly bright nightmare, too tired to even lift our heads off our pillows.

The National Park Service, which harbors some of the last remaining dark night skies in the U.S., estimates that two-thirds of Americans can’t see the Milky Way from their backyards. Not only are people baffled by the name—our white-banded, spiral galaxy, not the candy bar, came first—they can’t see beyond their urban lights.

A November 2008 National Geographic article about vanishing dark skies estimated that one-fifth of the world’s population can no longer see the Milky Way and that two-thirds of humanity lives under light-polluted skies. The article was accompanied by a map of nighttime Earth created from satellite images and ground data. From Los Angeles to Tokyo, much of the world is glowing like a gigantic circuit board.

The National Park Service makes a dire prediction: Unless the current rate of light pollution is slowed, no dark skies will remain in the continental U.S. by 2025.

Crawford, who retired as the IDA’s executive director in 2008, suggests that many city dwellers are too comfy on their couches to even care.

“The sky has fascinated humans for the entire history of life, and now most can’t see the dark night sky, nor are they interested in it,” he says. “The real stars have been replaced by the dancing stars in contests on TV.”

Swallowed by the Night

But that’s not true in the beautiful blackness of West Texas. Here, from remote Big Bend National Park to the world-class McDonald Observatory tucked atop Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains, it’s easy to feel swallowed by the night. In little places like Sanderson and Marathon, where it’s velvety dark in the middle of town, you can take in a sky so heavily laden with stars that it seems possible to reach up, pluck a couple down and stuff ’em in your pocket.

It’s hard to imagine anything threatening these pure night skies. And indeed, says Wren, much of West Texas—including the McDonald Observatory—is isolated in a dark pocket. But Wren, who oversees outdoor lighting control education from his base at the University of Texas research facility, explains that the atmosphere is scattering light from across the region, making the background sky grow brighter. The resulting sky glow hinders scientists’ ability to observe distant galaxies through even the most powerful telescopes.

In 1990, during his first year at the observatory, Wren received his first big assignment: attend a meeting of the fledgling IDA in Tucson. At the time, only a few outdoor lighting control ordinances existed worldwide.

Now, at a conservative estimate, there are thousands, including more than 20 ordinances in Texas. Wren has directly shaped about half of those, including in: Alpine, El Paso, Marfa, Midland and Van Horn and in Brewster, Culberson, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties.

If any Texas town gets a gold star, it’s Alpine, whose lighting ordinance—considered the model for West Texas—could put the city in rare air: If the International Dark-Sky Association approves a beefed-up Alpine ordinance, the city would join Flagstaff, Arizona, and Borrego Springs, California, as the world’s only International Dark Sky Communities.

It’s all part of a starry-eyed master plan from Bartee, an economic development coordinator and environmental adviser for Alpine, who wrote the ordinance revisions and envisions the Big Bend area as the epicenter of the nation’s largest dark-sky region.

Bartee, dubbed the Energizer Bunny, walks fast, talks fast and sells fast as he pitches West Texas’ pitch-black night skies to tourists. In his new job as vice president of sales and development for the Lajitas Golf Resort & Spa west of Big Bend National Park, Bartee has one main objective: Keep folks looking up.

That’s certainly the motto at Sierra la Rana, an 11,600-acre residential development southeast of Alpine that Bartee helped shape. Complete with grazing cattle, elevated views and an Astronomy Village that hosts stargazing parties, the unincorporated Sierra la Rana earned the IDA’s Dark Sky Friendly Development of Distinction award in 2009.

Sierra la Rana is attracting buyers from around the world—including retiring baby boomers lugging around their telescopes as they chase elusive dark night skies.

In August, Bartee, Wren and David Oesper, a former IDA board member who moved from Wisconsin to Alpine in February, spoke about the tourism draw of West Texas’ dark skies at a regional economic development summit.

Oesper, who co-chairs the IDA’s newly formed Southwest Texas chapter with Bartee, said the message for summit attendees was: “You’re sitting on a gold mine here, and you may not realize it.”

Big Bend: Even Darker Now

The night skies at Big Bend National Park are rich with stars. But a couple of years ago, residents in nearby Terlingua and Study Butte, some 25 miles to the west, started complaining about seeing glare from flood lights in the Chisos Basin, the park’s most concentrated tourist area.

So Big Bend officials took action in early 2008 under the leadership of Turecek, the park’s new chief of facility management, who beat an application deadline to secure a Best Lighting Practices grant from the National Park Foundation.

Today, Big Bend is reaping the benefits of a partnership with Iowa-based Musco Lighting. While aided by other donors, including The Friends of Big Bend National Park, Musco, via the grant, has paid the bulk of the expenses so far—about $200,000 of an estimated total $500,000 price tag—supplying full cut-off fixtures and low-wattage light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Through the ongoing project—among the first of its kind in the National Park Service and the largest of this scope—Big Bend has seen up to 98-percent reductions in wattage and energy consumption at its most heavily used tourist areas: the Panther Junction Visitors Center and adjacent gas station and the Chisos Basin facilities, which include a restaurant, lodge and store. Based on electric rates earlier this year, park officials estimated that the annual cost of operating the basin’s new lighting system would plummet from $3,293 to $164.

In summer 2009, when the Panther Junction phase was completed, Park Superintendent Bill Wellman tested the darkness: He drove west for a couple of miles, away from the visitors center, then headed back. All he saw was black night. No building lights. No sign of civilization … until he neared the gas station and spotted the surreal glow of the soft- drink machine.

Not to be alarmed, say Turecek and Wellman: There’s still plenty of light at Big Bend’s tourist facilities. It’s just softer, sort of a yellow-white moonlight color, and more efficient now, with no more blinding glare.

If you fill up after hours, the gas station’s sensor-activated lights will brighten for 15 minutes. If you arrive late at the visitors center, there’s ample light by which to see maps and other informational materials outside the building. You can safely stroll the basin grounds at night or easily see well enough to unlock your lodge room door.

Darker skies improve visitors’ experiences, Wellman says. “A lot of people thought they were getting a good look at the sky before the project started,” he says, chuckling.

Big Bend is Lighting the Path

All of which begs the question: Just how dark is Big Bend? The easy answer: Dark. Really dark.

The more complex answer, bearing in mind that the measuring of dark night skies remains an imprecise science, is that Big Bend easily ranks in the top five of darkest national parks in the continental U.S., says Chad Moore, program manager for the Colorado-based National Park Service Night Sky Team. Formed in 1999, the team has measured night-sky conditions in more than 80 of the nation’s 392 parks, including during three visits to Big Bend’s highest point, Emory Peak, in 2003, 2004 and 2007.

Based on something called the Sky Quality Index, a measuring system in which points are subtracted from a perfect score of 100, Big Bend scores a 95—losing only one point for sky brightness and four points for air quality (a National Park Service report indicates that pollution from Mexico affects Big Bend’s skies). Only a handful of other parks have scored that high, Moore said.

Big Bend, dark-sky advocates say, is lighting an important path: the preservation of unspoiled skies.

“For goodness sakes, don’t hang out the barn light,” says Crawford, the IDA co-founder, who never turns on the outside lights at his Tucson home unless he knows somebody’s coming over to play bridge. “Keep what’s already dark, dark.”

Elf Owls and Galaxies

Dust flew behind the car as my companion and I rattled down a gravel road at Big Bend. Our destination: Dugout Wells, a deserted stand of trees that once served as the area’s social hub. Our destiny: a date with the stars, courtesy of our guides for the night, Turecek and a Big Bend co-worker, Steve McAllister, who brought along his huge, homemade 20-inch reflecting telescope that swivels on a wooden base.

As we waited for darkness, watching the sun slide toward the Chisos Mountains, we got a special treat: the flight of a pair of Elf Owls from a cavity in a dead tree as dusk issued its magical summons for nocturnal creatures.

Slowly, the sky faded to silky blue, then black. Darkness wrapped around us like a blanket, and the stars seemed to emerge one by one, as though someone were turning on thousands of night-lights.

We saw Venus setting in the west. We took turns climbing the stepladder to the telescope’s lens, gazing at Mars and incomprehensibly big galaxies that made me feel very, very small. We located Polaris, the North Star, and joked that you still need some vague idea of where you are to use it as a compass.

As we became voices only, losing each others’ faces in the dark, we listened to the night: the humming of insects, the clanking of an old windmill’s blades, the chattering of the owls as they hunted supper.

“Elf owls and galaxies,” Turecek joyfully said, summing up the perfectness of it all. The conversations around me grew faint. Someday, I thought, gravel crunching under my boots as I pivoted under the sky, I’ll learn the names of all these stars and constellations.

Right now, I just want to be. Yes, I’m lost. And so very found.

Camille Wheeler is staff writer for Texas Co-op Power.