Why Keeping the Lights Off in West Texas Represents a Conservation Victory

Picture a night sky so brilliant with stars that you can see your own shadow in the light cast by the Milky Way. Imagine a view of space so vivid that the planetary glares created by Jupiter and Venus are visual distractions. First, though, you're going to have to turn off an awful lot of lights. And that's something most of us can't do: It's estimated that 99 percent of us in this country live in areas where skies are dulled by light pollution, leaving only a handful of stars visible even on the clearest nights. Among Texas' spectacular gifts, however, is one of the largest "pools" of natural darkness in the continental U.S. That area, the rugged, sparsely populated Trans-Pecos region, won added protection last week: Big Bend Ranch State Park - more than 300,000 acres of scenic back country adjoining the better-known Big Bend National Park, became the fourth Texas park to earn recognition by the International Dark-Sky Association as an official "dark sky" park. Together with the the 800,000 acre national park, the area forms a near-total blackout region the size of Rhode Island. And yes, there's a way to measure it: The "Bortle Scale," named for its inventor, an accomplished amateur astronomer, John. E. Bortle. Relative nighttime darkness is ranked on a scale of 1 to 9, with brightly lit city areas where virtually no constellations are visible rating a 9. Dallas, for instance is a 9; Cedar Hill State Park, scenic but surrounded by urban development, is an 8. The gorgeous, remote Big Bend region is among the fast-dwindling areas of the country that still ranks as a 1. The contrast between the night sky there and the one which most of us know at home is as different as, well, night and day. The designation represents a partnership between the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife and the Tucson, Ariz.-based non-profit International Dark-Sky Association, which promotes conservation of wilderness darkness areas and partners with communities to adopt lighting measures that minimize light pollution. When we're discussing conservation, absolute darkness may not be the first resource that leaps to mind. We have clean air and water and wildlife to worry about, and besides, human beings spent tens of thousands of years trying to conquer darkness. Relative to the history of our species, we've only had the lights on for a microsecond. But our precious stock of dark sky is spectacular, irreplaceable. Few of us will ever be astronauts; the view from the ground is the best celestial vista we're ever going to witness.And once seen, the nighttime skies visible from the Big Bend region, and similar low light pollution sites, are the stuff of lifetime memories. It's worth keeping the lights low in remote West Texas for a view you'll never forget.Texas' Dark ParksIn addition to Big Bend National Park's 801,163 acres, there are four Texas state parks designated "Dark Sky Parks" by the International Dark-Sky Association:-- Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Fredericksburg, 1643 acres--South Llano River State Park, Junction, 507 acres-- Copper Break State Park, Quanah, 1898 acres--Big Bend Ranch State Park, Presidio, 311,000 acresWhat's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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