LOS ALAMOS — Galen Gisler and three high school students are shrouded in darkness as they stand around a telescope in a Los Alamos park, but Gisler’s voice is clear as he talks about how the stars should be brighter.
Light pollution — some of it emanating from faraway cities — is dulling the view of the night sky, the retired astronomer said, motioning to the various sources.
A swath of hillside lights is in Los Alamos. A cluster of bright dots is in Santa Fe. A glow stretching above the horizon is from Albuquerque. Even the well-lit restrooms nearby are having an impact.
“Right now, you can see the Milky Way pretty good up there, but you should be able to see it all the way down to the horizon,” said Gisler, head of the Jemez Mountains Night Sky Consortium.
Gisler is among the activists who seek to dim light pollution to create a clearer view of New Mexico’s night sky — a vast, glittering canvas that has long dazzled tourists, artists, astronomers and casual stargazers.
They contend that curbing glare from streetlamps, parking lot lights and other outdoor fixtures also benefits the environment, wildlife, human health, tourism industries and government coffers.
Their call to reduce excessive light — partly through new technology — is the latest in a decades-old movement in which the first significant milestone was passage of the state Night Sky Protection Act in 1999. Santa Fe and other local governments followed by enacting ordinances to curtail surplus glare.
Activists say the past legislation was an important step, but more must be done as New Mexico’s growing population brightens urban areas even more, making light pollution seep into remote lookouts.
“Light pollution is just wasted light — it serves no useful purpose,” said Ruskin Hartley, executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association based in Tucson, Ariz.
Hartley’s group certifies “dark sky parks” throughout the world, based on how luminous the stars are, the quality of the nocturnal environment and whether the areas are protected for their scientific, cultural and educational value as well as public enjoyment.
New Mexico has a half a dozen such sites, including Valles Caldera National Preserve, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Clayton Lake State Park and the Cosmic Campground.
The National Park Service has applied to have Bandelier National Monument join the list.
Tourism officials don’t how much revenue these sites generate because there’s no way to track such specific activities, but New Mexico is a well-known destination for viewing night skies, agency spokesman Cody Johnson said.
But over the past 30 years, as lighting has become cheaper and technology has evolved, it has become easier to over-light areas to the detriment of ecosystems and people’s health, Hartley said.
Research shows lights above a certain intensity can throw off a person’s circadian rhythms and interrupt the body’s natural sleep patterns, Hartley said. Prolonged exposure can wear down people’s health, contributing to problems as serious as diabetes, he added.
Bright lights also disrupt the nighttime environment of nocturnal creatures.
Reducing light pollution isn’t about removing street lights, which are needed for safety; it’s about making sure they are used responsibly, Hartley said. Plus, conserving energy saves local governments money and decreases carbon emissions from power plants — another step in combating climate change.
“It really is a win, win, win,” he said.
Peter Lipscomb, Cerrillos Hills State Park manager, agreed that reducing wasted light shrinks the carbon footprint, moving New Mexico closer to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s goal of cutting greenhouse gases by almost half in the next decade.
The coronavirus pandemic has actually increased interest in night sky viewing, and that could prod local governments into taking the needed measures, said Lipscomb, who describes himself as a sensible-lighting advocate.
“What’s happened over the last year: People have slowed down, they’ve started looking at simpler activities, they’ve looked at things in their backyard,” Lipscomb said. “They’re seeing the night sky. Hopefully, that shift will bring action on the city level.”
After peeking through a high-powered telescope, Gisler glanced at the constellation overhead and again noted some stars missing from sight.
Cities like Los Alamos and Santa Fe should switch to LEDs with lower kelvins, he said.
A kelvin measures color temperature, which the eye registers as glare. Blue is the most intense and red is the softest, while amber is roughly in the middle.
Municipalities often use outdoor lights in the 5,000-kelvin range, Gisler said. Those should be replaced with LEDS that are under 3,000 to put it in the amber range, he said, calling that “a comforting light rather than a harsh, glaring light.”
Local governments also should dim or turn off streetlights after a certain hour in areas with little pedestrian and car traffic, Gisler said.
Members in his consortium are working with Los Alamos County and Los Alamos National Laboratory to curb light pollution, Gisler said. Española, Taos and Pojoaque also are on the radar.
Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess said a consultant has spoken with Gisler about updating night sky provisions as part the county’s larger revision of development codes.
The main changes suggested in lighting would be to adopt the newest technologies, Burgess said. The consultant won’t present the first report on proposed code changes to the County Council until March 30, so it’s all in an early stage, he said.
“This update process is planned to span the upcoming year,” Burgess said.
At the same time, Los Alamos National Laboratory is being more mindful of preventing light spillover into wildlife habit for protected species such as Mexican spotted owls, which are sensitive to light, a spokesman wrote in an email.
There was no mention of night sky protections.
Examples of the lab’s more controlled lighting include a motion-sensing LED system that illuminates specific areas of the main campus parking garage. And a building project shines solar-powered, LED lights on a defined parking area, not on nearby lands.
Down the hill, Santa Fe is looking to revamp 5,550 streetlamps.
The planned conversion includes the streetlights owned by the Public Service Company of New Mexico.
Crews will install LEDs that are 3,000 kelvins on residential streets and 4,000 kelvins on main thoroughfares. The new lights will cost $2.75 million to install and $179,000 a year to maintain, according to a city memo.
They will replace older, high-pressure sodium lights and consume 60 percent less electricity, officials say. The light replacement project should start in the spring and take about six months to complete, the memo says.
The new lights can be monitored and dimmed remotely. There are no plans at the moment to switch off any streetlights at night, city officials said.
Lipscomb mostly praised the project, saying the city is trying to reduce energy consumption. However, he and other night-sky advocates said there is more the city should do.
The city should revise its lighting codes so they all go by lumens, which gauge brightness, instead of wattage, said Albert Shultz, a member of the Santa Fe Stargazers.
The state and most counties and cities have outdated codes referring to wattage, Shultz said.
Even LEDs with high glare use less electricity than older lamps, but they beam light farther, Shultz said. So those LEDs solve one problem and create another, he added.
More effort should be made to point lights downward and shield them to prevent “light scattering” that goes up into the sky, Shultz said.
City codes do require certain lamps, both on private and public property, to be shielded. Parks, ballfields, parking lots and other sites that require higher-intensity lighting must get special approval from the city land use director.
Lipscomb said newer retail outlets in Santa Fe have more controlled lighting, though some older ones appeared grandfathered in. Santa Fe should cut off lights in some areas after a certain hour as cities like Tucson do, Lipscomb said. Motion-sensor systems are another way to eliminate unneeded light, he said.
Gisler contends that whatever the local governments say they are doing, it’s not nearly enough. He pointed at Los Alamos’ lights speckling the horizon and said if the county adopts his proposed rules, most of those pesky lights would fade.
“It sure would be nicer if we had darker skies,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”