Writers on the Range 

Bright idea: A city harnesses the forces of darkness

A half-century ago, people in Flagstaff began to see the light. It was back in the 1950s, a bustling time when searchlights stabbed the sky to ballyhoo the opening of a new store. But while additional businesses were welcome in Flagstaff, local astronomers noticed a problem: Their chances to see the heavens were getting dimmer.

The Flagstaff astronomers were people well connected to the stars, who understood their intrinsic meaning for humanity. They were also concerned enough to devote a lot of energy to being part of what they called the forces of darkness, rallying locals, explaining what was at stake and lobbying elected officials.

In response, on April 15, 1958, the Flagstaff City Council passed what is believed to be the first light-pollution legislation in America, and maybe even the world. Ordinance #440 prohibited “the use of certain commercial searchlights within the city limits” with a misdemeanor fine of $300 or “imprisonment in the City Jail not to exceed 90 days.”

Fast-forward 50 years, and Flagstaff’s residents are concluding a year-long celebration honoring a half-century of protecting dark skies and the resulting opportunity to enjoy the beauty of this natural, scientific and poetic resource. On the southern lip of the Colorado Plateau, close to a ponderosa pine forest, Flagstaff now has three local observatories. Another one is under construction nearby. Lighting and sign codes that are models for other jurisdictions now protect these observatories from light pollution.

The lighting code, adopted in 1989, establishes dark zones around local institutional telescopes and sets less-stringent limits farther away. It had to be updated in 1992 and 1999, in response to population growth and attempts by a few to evade the spirit of the law. Some people were adding lights not to enhance public safety, but to advertise a product and catch the eye of consumers. Commercial sign design is now managed by a sign code adopted in 1997 and updated in 2008, that mandates light lettering on dark backgrounds instead of the typical dark lettering on bright panels found elsewhere. Over time, the city’s zoning code administrator has gained the voluntary compliance of owners because they’ve come to appreciate the beauty and benefit of Flagstaff’s dark skies. What’s more, Coconino County officials eliminated billboards—including their nighttime illumination—many years ago.

The power of night has attracted other supporters, too, including Northern Arizona University and the Flagstaff Unified School District. Relationships have been formed with agencies such as the Arizona Department of Transportation and the governor’s office, and starry nights are also regarded as a cultural phenomenon, celebrated by events such as the night art exhibition at the Coconino Center for the Arts. The Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff Symphony and The Arboretum at Flagstaff have also gotten into the act with events that celebrate crystal-clear nights.

It’s odd, if you think about it, for a small city (population 58,000) to win renown for celebrating something as simple and as natural as the night sky. But if you’ve ever seen the now-famous image of the planet Earth at night, you see immediately that the American West contains some of the best remaining areas of darkness in the continental United States. Elsewhere, unfortunately, the norm has become brightly lighted areas that blot out the night sky.

Dark-sky activists have begun turning up throughout the country, and they have formed networks for individual citizens as well as municipalities to learn from one another about how to preserve the night-sky visibility where they live. New Mexico, for example, has designated its night sky as one of the state’s most-endangered ecosystems.

The rapidly growing acceptance of dark-sky preservation as a civic responsibility reflects two factors. One is a widespread realization in the West that economic and environmental benefits flow from “mere” stargazing at our dark night skies. There’s also a growing realization that public education is key to building the knowledge base necessary to implement positive dark-sky policies. Increasingly, towns, cities, states, parks and even the national government are recognizing their responsibility in the larger problem of the erosion of darkness, as well as their obligation to save unspoiled night sky as a public amenity.

The change from the 1950s has been amazing. From one small mountain town, a tiny group has grown into an expanding regional, national and international movement. Now there’s an established and respected tradition to save the wonders of the heavens as an inheritance for future generations.

Lance Diskan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a founder of the Dark Skies Coalition in Flagstaff, Arizona.
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