Written and photography by Rob McCorkle
Viewed from the base of the Organ Mountains, the western horizon at sunset glows like the embers of a blazing campfire. More than 100 people are gathered at the La Cueva Group Camping Area in late May for a stars party hosted by the Bureau of Land Management and Friends of the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument to gaze upon the celestial wonders above a growing Las Cruces. A sea of lights shimmers in an arc from the Mesilla Valley to the East Mesa and beyond, a testament to the last decade’s growth.
Astronomers from Alamogordo and Las Cruces beckon the young and old to gaze at the heavens through a half dozen telescopes focused on the quarter moon, Venus, and Jupiter and its moons—all that’s visible at dusk. Later, as darkness insinuates itself upon the surrounding desert and the state’s second largest city, myriad stars and nebulae will glow in the night sky.
Las Crucens are lucky. Much of the firmament is still visible to the naked eye, but for how much longer? Today’s denizens of El Paso, Albuquerque, and other major metropolitan areas can only see the brightest of celestial objects, such as the moon and major constellations, through the light pollution that blots out most of the heavenly bodies in the night skies.
Jerry McMahon, a member of the Las Cruces Astronomical Society off and on since the 1960s, has seen the city’s night skies start to lose some clarity to the glare of streetlights, neon signs, ball fields, and residences. Nonetheless, he says he can still see the Milky Way from his home in the northeast reaches of the city off Highway 70. He expresses concern about the growing use of LEDs in streetlights and parking lots that cast a bright bluish-white light more detrimental to night skies than the traditional incandescent sodium vapor lamps.
A recent article in Sierra Magazine cites a scientific paper that noted that the United States, on average, became 6 percent brighter each year between 1947 and 2000. Years ago, a largely rural population deplored the darkness and worshipped the light—light to keep criminals at bay and provide the means to do chores and read well into the night. But today’s pervasive artificial lighting is negatively impacting the health of animals and humans alike by disrupting nocturnal sleeping patterns and physiology.
A number of municipalities, including Las Cruces, as well as state and national parks, are taking steps to address light pollution and light trespass, by retrofitting existing lighting with shields or hoods to direct light toward the ground and requiring new lights to be more dark sky friendly. Some seek certification from the International Dark Sky Association, founded in Tucson in 1988. New Mexico boasts five IDSA-certified sites. The most recent is the 3.5-acre Cosmic Campground in the Gila National Forest in Catron County, which became the First International Dark Sky Sanctuary in the nation due to its “possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights.” The other four New Mexico sites are: Capulin Volcano National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Clayton Lake State Park, and Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.
At the behest of the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance (darksky.org/lightinglaws.html), Gov. Gary Johnson in 2000 signed into law the New Mexico Night Sky Protection Act (NSPA). Compliance with the NSPA is required by the New Mexico Electrical Code and enforcement falls upon each county and municipality in New Mexico. Outdoor lighting fixtures installed before 2000 are exempt from the act. Its purpose is “to regulate outdoor night lighting fixtures to preserve and enhance the state’s dark sky while promoting safety, conserving energy and preserving the environment for astronomy.”
Las Cruces’ City Council adopted an Outdoor Lighting Ordinance in August of 2000 to comply with the state act, curtail wasted electricity from lighting projected upward toward the sky, protect night skies, and minimize health impacts to humans, birds and animals. After a series of public meetings held over the years, the city in 2012 did a major overhaul of the lighting regulations and in 2016 added an amendment to address lighting issues with billboards.
“The city’s branched out and embraced newer technology,” says Robert Kyle of the Community Development Department, who was involved at the outset with addressing light pollution and energy efficiencies through municipal ordinances. “Now, instead of just addressing lumens and down-lighting, it places limits on uplighting and glare. We want to keep light contained on the property for which it was intended and limit anything above 90 degrees.”
Robert, who has lived in Las Cruces 24 years, says that anecdotally he doesn’t believe the level of sky glare has gotten proportionately worse here despite recent growth, attributing that at least in part to the enactment of the lighting ordinances. He believes most people aren’t aware of the lighting ordinances and their positive impact on the quality of life. “Unless light impacts someone’s driving at night, or somebody’s sleep is disrupted by light trespass,” he says, “I don’t think for most people it’s a topic that registers.”
Through their development codes that piggybacks on the state’s Night Sky Protection Act, both the City of Las Cruces and Dona Ana County address outdoor lighting through various restrictions on public property lighting, as well as new and replacement lighting for residences and commercial properties. As of July 2017, the city’s Outdoor Lighting Ordinance applies to all outdoor lighting, such as landscapes, spotlights, and billboards installed after that date. Various exemptions exist for grandfathered properties, exit signs, stairs, and the like governed by national electrical codes.
In 2016, Dona Ana County adopted a Unified Development Code whose purpose is “to maintain the rural character of the region, in part, by preserving the visibility of night-time skies while providing for safety and security.” It applies to all new development, addressing the need for commercial lighting to be “fully shielded” and setting limits on the amount of lamp wattage. Residential lighting must be shielded so that the lamp image is not directly visible outside the property perimeter.
Preserving night skies makes perfect sense for Las Cruces, which is blessed with a location at a favorable latitude, 4,000 foot elevation, dry air, little rainfall, and mostly clear nights, according to Howard Brewington, president of the Astronomical Society of Las Cruces who is retired from NMSU’s Astronomy Department.
“Las Cruces is still a pretty good place for astronomers,” Howard says. “On the west side of town where I live, behind Tombaugh Elementary, there are nights I can see part of the Milky Way. You drive a short distance outside of town and people from other parts of the country are amazed at how well they can see the night sky. This is a unique area and we need to do what we can to preserve it at all costs.”
Fireflies, sparks, lightning, stars
Camp fires, the moon,
headlights on cars
The Northern Lights and
The Milky Way
You can’t see that stuff in the day
When the earth turns
its back on the sun
The stars come out
and the planets
Start to run around
Now they call that day is done
But really it’s just getting started
Song by Guy Clark & Buddy Mondlock