« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Stargazers defend darkness in Arizona

Flagstaff becomes the first "International Dark-Sky City"

 

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Lance Diskan had a dark reason for moving to this small city on the Colorado Plateau.

"I grew up in New England, where there were stars, and then moved to L.A., where I could see exactly 11 stars," says Diskan, a community organizer and health educator at Northern Arizona University.

"One of the things we required when we had children was that they be able to see the stars," he says. "We wanted them to have the unlimited imaginative potential that comes from looking at the stars. Part of being human is looking up at the stars and being awestruck."

Now, as one of the founders of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition, Diskan is part of an innovative effort to ensure that Flagstaff residents and visitors continue to have that opportunity. It's a concern that echoes throughout the West.

Around the world, and particularly in the energy-hungry United States, a flood of artificial lighting obscures the stars. A study recently published in an astronomy journal estimated that two-thirds of Americans cannot see the Milky Way.

Even the wide-open West isn't immune. Chad Moore, a California-based National Park Service researcher who works on light pollution issues, thinks that not a single national park in the Lower 48 is unaffected by light pollution.

"When the skies are so pristine, like in remote parks, it's easy to spoil them," he says. "We can detect cities up to 150 miles away in remote parks." Even in Death Valley, he notes, the skyglow from Los Angeles is visible.

The effects are many: Astronomers' work is more difficult, and locals have to pay for more electricity. David Crawford of the International Dark-Sky Association, based in Tucson, Ariz., estimates that the U.S. habit of spilling light into the sky costs at least $2 billion every year.

"Skylight City"

If any place is acutely aware of its sky, it is Flagstaff, which was dubbed the "Skylight City" in the 1890s, thanks to its high elevation and clear, dry skies. In 1894, astronomer Percival Lowell founded an observatory here, and Flagstaff astronomers discovered Pluto in 1930. Today, half a dozen major telescopes ring the city.

In 1958, Flagstaff passed what are thought to have been the world's first lighting restrictions in order to protect the views from those observatories; in 1988, the city and Coconino County passed two of the world's most comprehensive lighting ordinances.

The ordinances prohibited the grossest wastes of light, such as searchlights and unshielded parking-lot lights. But yard lights and bright gas-station canopies continued to multiply, and a great deal of wasteful lighting was grandfathered in under the 1988 law.

"In spite of our good lighting code, we have a thousand points of light pollution," says John Grahame of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition.

In 1999, three men founded the coalition. One was Diskan. One was Grahame, an activist who had been working to preserve local open space, including the nearby Dry Lake wetland (HCN, 5/8/00: Crater doesn't come cheap). The third was Chris Luginbuhl, an astronomer at Flagstaff's U.S. Naval Observatory and a primary force behind the 1988 ordinances.

The three have been able to rally considerable support behind their notion that good lighting is important for more than just astronomers.

"Good lighting is good for everybody," Luginbuhl says. "In the grand scheme, whether an astronomer can continue a research project is much less important than whether a child can see the stars."

Education meets business

Though the coalition has been involved in some vehement development controversies over the years, as dark-sky activists they chose collaboration over confrontation. Early in their campaign, they presented a "Friend of the Stars" award to the owners of a local Texaco station with shielded lighting.

With the help of a $3,000 grant from the Flagstaff Community Foundation, they created an education campaign that produced brochures for home-owners, posters for stores that sell lights, and activity packets for local schools.

The coalition has also formed an alliance with the chamber of commerce and with Arizona Public Service, the local electric utility. APS and the city pledged $11,000 for the "Million Lumens Campaign," which aims to modify a million lumens of lighting by year's end.

Businesses will use the money to replace outdated, wasteful lights or buy new equipment. "The changes can improve light quality and can result in some pretty nice energy savings," says APS's Brad Ryan. "We recognize that quality lighting is important to the community."

Excessive lighting is often installed by business owners concerned about security, but dark-skies advocates say that glaring lighting doesn't provide safety. "The bad guys need to see, too," Luginbuhl points out. As if to confirm the point, the coalition gave one of its year 2000 "Friend of the Stars" awards to the city and county for exceptional, glare-free lighting design at a new jail.

Flagstaff isn't the only Western city tackling the problem of light pollution. Tucson, which like Flagstaff is ringed by observatories, has had a fairly strict lighting code for years. Weber County, Utah, adopted that state's first dark-sky ordinance in 2000. Redmond, Wash., passed an improved lighting code last summer.

Ketchum, Idaho, passed a highly progressive lighting ordinance two years ago and has just finished retrofitting all its streetlights, at a total cost of $4,100, to prevent glare. Like the other ordinances, Ketchum's requires shielding of lights, not turning them off.

But the Flagstaff activists stand out for their innovative coalition building. "Flagstaff has obviously made a special commitment," says Liz Alvarez, associate director of the International Dark Sky Association. "The city really shows some investment in energy savings, in safety, and in future appreciation of the night sky."

On Oct. 24, the International Dark-Sky Association formally designated Flagstaff as the first "International Dark-Sky City."

The activists hope their influence will be felt beyond Flagstaff. If light pollution is widespread, then perhaps its solution can be, too, they say. As Diskan says, "This can happen everywhere. It can be done in communities around the country. It's a great community builder."

 

Freelancer Peter Friederici writes in Flagstaff and tries to remember the names of constellations.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • The Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition, P.O. Box 1892, Flagstaff, AZ 86002; darkskies@flagstaff.az.us;
  • International Dark-Sky Association, 3225 N. First Ave., Tucson, AZ 85719 (520/293-3198), ida@darksky.org or www.darksky.org.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Peter Friederici