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Texas Parks, Towns Embrace Dark Sky Movement

Cory John O'Quinn via Texas Tribune

In recent years, Texas’ state parks havestruggledwith falling visitor numbers and budget cuts. These days, in their quest to lure people back, the parks are promoting opportunities for night-sky viewing, away from city lights.

“As Texas becomes more and more urbanized, people — literally — they can’t see the stars,” said Chris Holmes, the director of interpretive services for state parks at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Next summer, he said, the department will launch a program aimed at encouraging star-gazing in more parks across the state.

Star-gazing in Texas presents both opportunities and challenges, dark-skies advocates say — and not just for state parks. In West Texas, the dry desert air makes for bright stars. But fast-growing cities and towns, plus a general distaste for regulation, mean that light from street lamps and other outdoor bulbs diffuses into the night sky, rather than being controlled by downward-pointing fixtures.

A small but growing number of Texas cities are passing lighting ordinances aimed at protecting star-gazing. A law passed last year requires municipalities within 57 miles of the McDonald Observatory (which is north of Alpine) to approve ordinances to minimize the impact of lighting on the observatory. All but Balmorhea and Presidio have done so, said Bill Wren, the assistant to the superintendent of the observatory.

“It’s getting worse at a slower rate than it was,” Wren said, adding, “Most of the new lighting going in these days is good.”

Several Hill Country towns, eager for tourism, have also introduced lighting ordinances. In December, Dripping Springs approved new rules — good ones, Wren said — that required many new installations to have fixtures that prevent light from leaking to other properties or into the night sky. Marble Falls and Blanco have also passed ordinances, according to Steven Bosbach, a representative of the Austin Astronomical Society. He said Austin is also working to change streetlight fixtures.

Still, advocates say lobbying for change town by town can be tough. (No further state-level legislation is expected anytime soon.) “Little cities, little towns — they each have to have their own ordinances and make their own decisions,” said Carolyn Sumners, the vice president for astronomy at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which has an observatory in Brazos Bend State Park, about an hour from Houston.

The parks and wildlife department, eager to set an example, wants to retrofit lighting in its parks, and since state funding for such purposes is essentially nonexistent, advocacy groups, along with the McDonald Observatory, are helping out. "The areas where you can actually go to see a dark sky are shrinking, and there are parks in the middle of a lot of them," Wren said. He did some work recently at Hueco Tanks State Park, east of El Paso, and it "didn’t require any funding, just a step-ladder and a screwdriver, to re-aim some floodlights," he said.

The ultimate pay-off is a special "dark sky" status, a designation conferred by the Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association, an advocacy group. So far Big Bend National Park is theonlyplace in Texas that has achieved that; only nine other dark-sky parks exist around the world. The announcement came earlier this year, when the group hailed Big Bend as having “the darkest measured skies in the lower 48 states."

“It was gigantic,” David Elkowitz, a park spokesman, said of the effort to achieve the designation. It took a few years of changing hundreds of fixtures and giving them new hoods. He did not know the total outlay for the retrofit, much of which was shouldered by donations and a partnership with an Iowa-based lighting company, Musco Lighting. But the work slashed electric lighting costs by an extraordinary 98 percent, Elkowitz said. Some regions outside the park are still being retrofitted, he said.

For observatories near large urban areas, the challenges only get worse. Preston Starr, the observatory manager at the University of North Texas, said that six years ago, the university had to move its observatory from its location 10 miles north of downtown Denton when a new development, complete with a football stadium, went up six miles away.

Now the observatory is 10 miles west of Denton, but the problem keeps encroaching. “Probably for another 10 years we’ll be fine,” Starr said. Eventually, though, he expects that teaching in the astronomy program will rely less on visual labs, and more on electronics, to do imaging of the stars.

Still, Preston said, the solution is simple: fewer streetlights, or at least ones that don’t send light up toward the heavens.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand the amount of money that is going into keeping those things burning all night,” he said. “I’m not against streetlights, [but] just having more doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better.”

Kate Galbraith reported on clean energy for The New York Times from 2008 to 2009, serving as the lead writer for the Times' Green blog. She began her career at The Economist in 2000 and spent 2005 to 2007 in Austin as the magazine's Southwest correspondent. A Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University from 2007 to 2008, she has an undergraduate degree in English from Harvard and a master's degree from the London School of Economics.