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.

Multiple benefits

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.

The state Tourism Department promotes the dark sky parks on a webpage. Another webpage lists not-yet-certified prime spots, including Bandelier, to see luminous constellations.

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.”

Revamping lights

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.”

(11) comments

ROSEMARY ZIBART

We live near the Santa Fe Indian School and they have an array of lights on the sports field behind the school that destroy any star watching in our neighborhood. I totally agree that its dark night skies are potentially one of Santa Fe's greatest assets and should be preserved and enhanced.

Stefanie Beninato

Although small, the city could remove the Christmas lights from the plaza. They are totally unneeded. The building inspectors have been reluctant to enforce the requirement that new outdoor lights face downward. Many still are uncapped on the top and many more face outward. Same can be said for spotlights, motion detector lights that illuminate the neighbor's yard and into the middle of the street. And yes commercial areas with large parking lots are a particular problem as well. The city also has had stadium lights on at Salvador Perez for months and illuminated the SFCCC downtown as well. Why expect the city to walk its talk? Myself I like darkness not just for sleeping but for the feeling of being wrapped in velvet and the ability to enjoy the night sky.

ROSEMARY ZIBART

I have written a children's book extolling the night sky and also use that image of being wrapped in velvet -- have always loved the dark.

Stefanie Beninato

Rosemary Glad I am not the only one who experiences darkness as velvet. I was a little hesitant to share that.

James Brown

Congratulations to the City for the streetlight replacement plan -- "phase I" shall we say since as Mr. Lipscomb notes more efforts will be needed. I hope the new lights are shielded to focus light down were it may do some good, rather than out and up. The City seems to be ahead of the State, admittedly a low bar, in this effort. Example: to view and photograph last July's comet I used Museum Hill where some gated parking lot lights were off and the rest shielded. However, dozens of bright lights illuminated the building and gated parking lot of the Museum Administration Bldg. up the street. Why are we lighting gated parking lots? They completely ruined the view from the open and unlit Botanical Garden lot toward the Ski Basin and the comet. For its part, the privately-managed garden had a bright, garish light on its building which unless remediated will interfere with the upcoming lunar eclipse May 26th in the southwest sky just before sunrise.

katrin smithback

We have way too many bright lights in this city. Please lower the brightness, put on motion detectors, and allow neighbors to get them turned off on request. Lighting up areas where there are pedestrians on the street makes sense, but outlying areas don't need this illumination. And the connection with crime reduction is dubious- break-ins occur during the day in residential areas. Why are street lights in residential neighborhoods on all night? Engineers and elected officials, please listen to the citizens of the city on this and devise a plan to reduce urban light pollution.

Floyd Cable

One of the pleasures of living at 7,000' of elevation is stargazing. That is negated by the light pollution, much of which is from commercial properties. If dark sky requirements were enforced with the businesses along Cerrillos Rd., it would make a tremendous difference with the city's light pollution. Even if the very bright lights were to remain in place but directed downward, instead of almost parallel with the ground it would make for a tremendous improvement. There are lighting standards, but many of the businesses don't comply, and are unlikely to do so unless the city effectively reminds them of their civic duty. If the city doesn't have the staff to enforce compliance, why not train citizen patrols, give them the simple equipment needed to measure and record violations/compliance?

D. Stark

It’s wonderful to see this piece in the New Mexican. We live in a beautiful area with skies that defy expression. We should do everything we can do to allow this natural and stunning beauty to be viewed from any where. But, it’s not just for beauties sake, the wild all around us would fare far better as well. Perhaps we can learn something from the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve? Bravo to Gisler!

Patrick Brockwell

It would be great to see the penitentiary and National Guard Armory south of Santa Fe direct their lights downward instead of illuminating La Cienega. I'm not afraid of the dark. Show me the stars!

Dan Frazier

Reducing light pollution is long overdue in New Mexico and Santa Fe. Some of the worst offending lights are controlled by the city of Santa Fe itself. I'm thinking of the stadium lights at Santa Fe High School, which have been lighting up the playing fields most nights even during the pandemic, when there seems to be nobody even using the fields.

And while we are talking about light pollution, maybe we should also talk about viewsheds: Some of the best vantage points to see the beauty that surrounds Santa Fe have been ruined by light poles that are excessively tall. One example is at the Chavez Center. The entrance area sits on a hill giving a great view, except for the light poles along the seldom-travelled road just below, which mar the view. Another example is at Siringo where two popular trails and the Rail-Runner line converge at the top of a hill. It is a great vantage point for stunning sunsets, except for a lot of stadium lights on 75-foot poles at the high school that obstruct the view.

david cartwright

Couldn't agree wth Dan F more. The city and county are the number one offenders, hiding behind the excuse of public safety as always.

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