EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
Tex Toler knows what it’s like when the stars at night are so bright they cast a shadow. On a highway somewhere between Ozona and Fort Stockton, he stood in the West Texas desert with his father and brother to marvel at the naturally lit landscape.
“I looked up expecting to see the moon,” Toler recalled. “It was nighttime, so what else could do that? But when I looked up, there was no moon.”
Toler’s stargazing revelation grew into advocacy for protecting the night skies from invasive artificial lighting on the ground. Dark skies at night, as Toler and others see them, benefit plants, animals, and humans and are fairly easy to protect.
“The thing is, light pollution is the only pollution that can remediate itself by turning off a switch,” Toler said.
Toler’s advocacy stretches across Highland Lakes skies. He helped the city of Llano craft its Dark Sky lighting ordinance in 2015 and served as a member of the Dark Sky Reserve board. He recently met with Cottonwood Shores officials to discuss dark-sky ideas and helped initiate Turn On the Night, during which local communities encouraged residents to turn off all of their outdoor lighting for two hours one night last April. The goal was for people to see more stars and realize how easy it is to protect the night skies.
The International Dark Sky Association and its Texas affiliate recognize communities, cities, and parks that adhere to dark-sky principles. Along with Llano, the city of Horseshoe Bay and Inks Lake State Park have earned Dark Sky status in the Highland Lakes.
Though fairly rural, Inks Lake State Park still feels the impact of artificial night lights. Its skies currently rate 4.5 on the Bortle Scale, which gauges how well the human eye can see stars and planets. In contrast, Big Bend Ranch State Park in West Texas rates a 1. Urban areas rate a 9 or 10.
Dark skies play a big role in the sleep cycles of humans, animals, and even plants, said Lindsay Pannell, the Inks Lake State Park interpretive ranger
“Some plants only get pollinated at night because that’s when they bloom,” said Pannell, adding that nocturnal bloomers aren’t the only plants affected.
She referred to a study that compared the day blooms of two wildflower fields. Researchers exposed one of the fields to light during the night, while the other remained dark.
“The field with the light, it had forty percent less blooms,” Pannell said. “That’s a big difference.”
Lauren Sweat, an intern at Inks Lake State Park, added that artificial light at night can alter nocturnal animals’ patterns. Some animals, particularly prey, use the cover of night for protection. Artificial light shines a spotlight on them.
Dark Sky communities reap economic benefits as well. People travel to see the marvels of the universe on display, which translates into tourism dollars. Toler pointed to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, which is an International Dark Sky Park, as an example. It draws countless campers seeking a night under the stars. South Llano River State Park is also a popular Dark Sky destination.
The city of Horseshoe Bay became an International Dark Sky Community in 2015.
“When people move out here, one of the reasons they do is for the dark nights,” City Manager Stan Farmer said.
The city already had many dark-sky measures in place and only needed a few tweaks to earn the International Dark Sky Association’s recognition. While Dark Sky status is a measure of pride, Farmer said residents just want to protect the quality of life in the city.
And while cities can enact ordinances to enforce dark-sky practices, Farmer and Toler point out that those steps often aren’t necessary if leaders simply educate residents on the value of darkness and how a few simple modifications can go a long way in curbing light pollution and light trespass. Making a difference is just a matter of shielding outdoor lighting, turning it off when it’s not necessary, reducing the wattage, and pointing it in the direction it’s supposed to go.
For Sweat, dark skies are an essential part of Texas culture and mystique. She referred to the lyrics of the popular song “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” sometimes considered the de facto state song.
“The lyrics go, ‘The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas,’” she said. “If we let the light pollution grow, we’re losing our identity.”