Town looks toward dark skies

By Shawn Byrne

Sun Editor

An idea to make Wickenburg a recognized International Dark-Sky Community could make the town a star in astronomy, conservation and tourism universes.

Town Council members David Stander and Sam Crissman wanted to discuss the option of Wickenburg becoming an officially recognized International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) community, and Council agreed to have Community Development and Neighboring Services Director Steve Boyle form a Director’s Task Force at Council’s Nov. 18 meeting.

Christa Sadler, president of the IDA Phoenix Area Chapter, showed Council many of the advantages Wickenburg could gain if the town became an IDA community.

“One thing that comes to mind when I think of Wickenburg is the West,” Sadler said, after spending the day in town. “This is where the West still lives. Why not have the night sky of the West still live as the cowboys saw it 100, 150 years ago?”

Sadler said having such a designation, as does the communities of Oak Creek, Camp Verde, Flagstaff, Fountain Hills and Sedona, could be a driving factor for Wickenburg’s tourism sector. It may be difficult to believe, but there are people who have lived in large cities their entire lives and have never seen the Milky Way.

“I grew up in San Francisco and that was not an option for me growing up until I moved to Arizona,” said Sadler, who is a park ranger for the National Park Service and works at Tonto National Forest. “I was with a woman who was 80 years old from Mesa who never saw the Milky Way until she went up to Show Low with me.”

A designated dark sky over Wickenburg just might bring in a crowd of astronomers who may spend money while in the community. Curtis Arnett, a Wickenburg resident who is in favor of the Town moving forward with the designation, estimated that 1 percent (about 47,000) of the Phoenix metro population, estimated at 4.7 million by the Census Bureau in 2017, are astronomers and could be counted on to bring in revenue to offset the costs it would take for the Town to become and IDA community.

“Doing the right thing will make the Town money,” Arnett said. “Dark-Sky costs can be a revenue stream of the Town.”

Astronomy and Wickenburg have been known to closely work together. Mayor Rui Pereira saw it first hand.

“In my previous life as ranch manager at Los Cab, guests always enjoyed it when we brought out the telescope,” the mayor said. “I’m in full support.”

Conservationists could also be an ally for the IDA community designation. Sadler told Council that plants and animals depend on Earth’s daily cycle of light and dark rhythm to govern life-sustaining behaviors such as reproduction, nourishment, sleep and protection from predators. The Lesser long-nosed bat is a main pollinator of the Saguaro cactus, which could be jeopardized if growth disrupts that daily cycle.

“Without these bats and a proper nocturnal environment for them, it’s possible there could be a slow decline in the Saguaro population.”

Obstacles

Sadler told Town Council that attaining the IDA designation is a rigorous application process requiring applicants to demonstrate robust community support for dark sky protection and document designation-specific program requirements.

“The application needs a team effort with people pitching in together to make it go quicker,” she said. “There are things the community can do.”

Sadler says the entire application process takes about 1-3 years on average. The process starts with re-evaluating the Town light ordinance that is already in place to make sure new standards meet the standards of IDA and protect the night sky from new developments moving forward.

One way for residents to be involved is to volunteer to take home a dark-sky quality meter. Residents would check out the meters for a week, measure the darkness at their homes, and then bring the meters back.

The sound of purchasing quality outdoor lighting at first appears to be added-on expenses for the Town because it already has lighting in place. Sadler told Council quality outdoor light could cut energy use by 60-70 percent, which would save money. If shielded fixtures were properly added, the same level of illumination on the ground can be provided as unshielded ones with less energy and cost as well.

Sadler pointed out that the object was to keep the light illuminating where it is needed and keep it from escaping that area.

Another answer to the cost obstacle is that once a community is designated, it has a 10-year period for all of its lights to become compliant.

“Once you get the designation,” Sadler said, “you have 10 years to make sure all the lights in Wickenburg are up to standard.”

The Director’s Task Force will analyze areas of non-compliance and how to treat existing lights and report back to Council.

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