Dark Skies

Image of the dark sky horizon in West Text, Big Bend

Photo credits: Morteza Safataj

BBCA DARK SKY PROGRAM

Perhaps one of the most-mentioned attributes of the Big Bend is its awe-inspiring starry night sky. Many people never get to see the Milky Way until they head out west, and when they do, it can be a life-changing experience.

Fortunately, the Big Bend region is home to the McDonald Observatory and because of this, the seven counties surrounding the observatory have a lighting ordinance that serves to protect the dark skies from light pollution created by populated areas, as well as oil and gas development. With enforcement of the ordinances both difficult and unpopular, the best method of stopping light pollution is through advocacy, education, and outreach.

The BBCA Dark Sky program will develop educational materials and train volunteers to go out into the community and speak to groups about the easy steps one can take to not only save money/energy, but protect the beauty of the starry skies. The program will work with area businesses, homeowners, and service providers to implement good lighting practices. BBCA seeks to achieve International Dark-Sky Community certifications for Marfa, Fort Davis, and Alpine through working with local governments to strengthen lighting ordinances.

Why do we need to protect dark skies?

The International Dark-Sky Association defines light pollution as “any adverse effect of artificial light including sky glow, glare, light trespass, light clutter, decreased visibility at night, and energy waste.” Some estimates indicate that over 99% of people living in the United States live under light polluted skies. There are fewer and fewer places left to view the stars in perfect clarity. Because its remoteness and distance from large cities, the Big Bend region is home to some of the darkest skies in the country.

McDonald Observatory, a world renowned astronomical research institute located in the Davis Mountains in Jeff Davis County, operates a number of advanced telescopes to explore and observe space. Light pollution reduces the effectiveness of the observatory’s telescopes, excess light from the surrounding area drowns out the light from stars and other celestial objects. As greater industrialization and development of the region has taken place (most notably light pollution from oil and gas operations in the Permian Basin), light pollution has crept closer and closer to the Observatory. The pictures below show how sky glow has increased dramatically over time.

The seven counties surrounding the Observatory do have some ordinances in place to protect the night sky, but these ordinances are difficult and often unpopular to enforce. McDonald Observatory’s Dark Sky Initiative works with the oil and gas industry to recommend lighting practices for voluntary implementation on oil and gas rigs and other facilities. The Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park have both been recognized as International Dark Sky Parks from the International Dark-Sky Association. These two parks combined  form one of the largest contiguous areas in the United States under dark sky protection.

Maintaining dark skies also has the economic benefit of boosting tourism to West Texas.  Preserving dark skies promotes amateur astronomers and others wanting to enjoy nature to come to the region.  Over 100,000 visitors come to McDonald Observatory annually and Fort Davis hosts the Texas Star Party, one of the largest annual gatherings of amateur astronomers in the country.  Without dark skies, communities would lose the economic benefit astro-tourism brings to the region.

These successes in protecting the dark skies of the Big Bend are noteworthy, but more efforts are needed to safeguard the dark skies for future generations.

Dark-Sky Program

BBCA’s Dark Sky Program will work with private landowners, homeowners, businesses, and local units of government to implement dark-sky protections across the region. Program objectives will be achieved through advocacy efforts, education and public outreach, and monitoring and measuring dark skies.

How can I help?

If you would like to get involved in dark sky efforts in the Big Bend, e-mail info@bigbendconservationalliance.org.

Need more information?

Download BBCA’s Dark Skies Brochure!