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Observations on a Vision for Wickenburg – Part 4

In Part 3 of this series on vision statements for Wickenburg I dealt with the issue of conservation of our water resources. Part 4 will focus on the preservation of our night sky, why it is important and why it is worth protecting.

Conservation – Light Pollution vs. Dark Skies

Have you ever camped in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, or perhaps up in the Sierra Ancha Wilderness Area on the rim of Cherry Creek Canyon; or other places where the glow of civilization does not penetrate the night sky? If so, then you have undoubtedly experienced skies that were so bright with stars that you had to force yourself to go to sleep. These are places where you can see a half dozen or more satellites in less than five minutes, where you can see meteors burning tracks across the sky all night long. These are places where the belt of the Milky Way is not just visible, it is brilliant.

When we moved to Wickenburg in 2000 I could look toward the metro-Phoenix area at night and see a small glow of light pollution on the southeastern horizon. By placing my two fists together at arms length, I could easily “blot out” this source of light. At that time the small glow was not particularly troublesome for viewing the great constellations of Scorpius and Orion. I was just happy that I had returned to a clear and star-bright sky after having lived in polluted environments for a number of years.

Today, that arc of light pollution spans a width of three and a half feet between my outstretched arms and rises about 25 degrees above the horizon. On nights when the pollution in Phoenix is especially bad the reflective glow is even worse and, as Peoria and Surprise race toward our southern border the quality of our night sky will continue to erode. The “arc” of light pollution will greatly expand.

To me, the quality of the night sky is every bit as important as the panoramic vista that surrounds Wickenburg during daylight hours. It was (and remains) one of many reasons why we selected Wickenburg as our home and it is a quality of life issue that I would hope we can all preserve. In a figurative manner, once we’ve lost our view of the night sky we have, in effect, lost our most important visual connection with the universe. We might as well be members of an ant colony.

It was encouraging to read a letter to the Wickenburg Sun from Curtis Arnett in the November 14th edition, titled “Dark-sky ordinance needed to keep night sky enjoyable.” Mr. Arnett correctly points out that the urban glow of metro-Phoenix greatly inhibits the enjoyment of the southern night sky. At present you can still look east toward the Bradshaw Mountains, north toward Congress and Prescott, or west toward Aguila and enjoy relatively clear, dark skies.

As a community, the threat we pose to the loss of our night sky is as great as the metropolitan growth that is moving toward us from the southeast – there are numerous locations around Wickenburg that contribute significant light pollution. For example, the athletic fields near the airport use lighting that needlessly scatters in all directions, producing a nighttime glow that is visible for several miles.

As Wickenburg grows in geographic size, along with its use of outdoor lighting, the cumulative glow will continue to increase unless we work together to limit its effect.

Many cities and towns in Arizona have enacted light pollution ordinances in an effort to preserve their night sky and it can work for us as well. In locations like Flagstaff and Tucson, their “Night Sky” efforts protect important astronomical facilities such as the Lowell and Kitt Peak observatories. Light sources that originate from well beyond the visible horizon degrade the quality of these research facilities.

As a vision statement for the preservation of our night sky habitat, Wickenburg should:

  • Define an objective “tolerance level” for light pollution in Wickenburg. In other words, how many lumens of light will we permit to radiate into the night sky within a given measure of area? There are abundant sources of help on this issue from other cities in Arizona, as well as our universities.
  • Establish and enforce ordinances that limit light pollution caused by public, commercial and residential use.
  • Establish and preserve open spaces on our southern boundaries that will serve as barriers to the encroaching light pollution of metro-Phoenix.
  • Strive to maintain a generally low density of housing within current and future town limits. I do not know how to define this objective in quantifiable or even meaningful terms, but I think you would agree that lower density translates into lower light pollution.

The window of opportunity to manage this problem is closing. Once we have lost our night sky we will not retrieve it for future generations.

Last 5 posts by Allan Hall

8 comments to Observations on a Vision for Wickenburg – Part 4

  • Thanks for starting this topic of conversation here.

    I moved to Wickenburg in 1997. Our house is on the Southwest corner of town, shielded from the “Phoenix Glow” by a hillside. When we first moved here, it was typical to see the Milky Way every cloudless night, right from our back patio. Nowadays, however, high-intensity lighting at the High School football field, the Sunset Park ball fields, and the Safeway and Alco parking lots have done a lot to brighten the night skies in our area. Last night’s cloud cover gave the whole area a distinctively LA-style glow as ground lights refected off the low clouds.

    Sadly, I don’t think your pleas for action will be heeded. For reasons I can’t quite comprehend, the people moving into Wickenburg these days seem to like it bright at night. (Just as they seem to like living in homes a stone’s throw from their neighbors.) Maybe they bring fears of nighttime crimes from the places they used to live. Maybe they’ve just never enjoyed a dark night under a starlit sky the way we have. Or, more likely, maybe they just don’t care.

    I’m lucky. I still have a truly dark place to retreat to: 40 acres of ranch land on top of a mesa. I’ll be moving my telescope up there next summer, since it simply isn’t worth keeping down here any more.

  • Allan Hall

    For anyone interested, the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) provides excellent and easy to read information about efficient outdoor lighting for residences, commercial and public street use, as well as sports facilities.
    Their web site is http://www.darksky.org/ordsregs/beg_guide.php

  • TJF

    City people are afraid the boogeyman is going to get them. They must light up every square inch of property at all times. I’ve seen this before, and you’ll never change their ways.

  • Allan Hall

    An article in the Arizona Republic, January 17th, documents the economic benefit of “dark skies” to our state is $252 million per year. This is based upon the contribution of astronomical observatories and amatuer astronomy activities throughout the state.

    Interestingly, the Town of Wickenburg’s Planning and Zoning Commission has recently taken up the issue of preserving dark skies in our area. Kudos to them!

  • Shane

    I hope the beauty of the night sky will be preserved in Wickenburg. There’s just nothing like it in the big city. The crawl of Phoenix toward her frankly irritates me.

  • Allan Hall

    Hello Shane:
    There is some hope for preserving the night sky.
    The Wickenburg Planning and Zoning group has taken this topic under consideration. Also, the AZ Republic newspaper has written some very nice articles about the value of dark skys and the positive impact they have upon
    Arizona’s economy.

    Preserving our night sky is not very difficult if people (and town government) will just take a little effort.
    Thanks for your reply,

  • Sharon Pearson

    Thanks, Allan for being concerned about Wickenburg’s dark skies. Curtis Arnett and I have formed a PAC filed with the town clerk advocating for a dark sky ordinance. We have previously addressed the Town Council on this issue and will do so again in the future. Curtis has provided info to the Wickenburg Sun and hopefully it will be in next weeks issue and we will gain additional supporters. Almost everyone I’ve talked to about the group has donated the $1 that allows their name to be used as a Dark Sky Advocate. We need to get people involved. The last Council meeting I attended the discussion was on revising the ordinance for signs and I was the only non-business owner there. Keep writing. I enjoy all your articles.

  • Allan Hall

    Thanks for commenting and it’s awfully good to hear from you! A thought on the Dark Skies ordinance – take the Wickenburg Town Council for a short ride out to Aguila one evening after dark. From there, looking east, you can now see the glow of Wickenburg. It is distinct and cannot be confused with the night-glow of metro-Phoenix or Prescott. We used to have skies like Aguila…