Needs for darkness, security clash at Yuma
Photographs of glaring new stadium lights along the border near Yuma, taken when President Bush visited in April, sent shudders through astronomers across southern Arizona.
The 57-foot-high, thousand-watt lights, installed to illuminate the border and help U.S. Border Patrol agents see illegal crossers at night, send unshielded glare into the night sky for miles, greatly reducing the visibility of planets, stars and other celestial bodies. Astronomers worry that more lights could diminish research at area observatories and harm one of Arizona’s major industries.
“If we have those lights all across the border, you can kiss astronomy in southern Arizona goodbye,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bob Gent, an astronomer and president of the board of the International Dark-Sky Association. The organization was founded by Arizona astronomers in 1988 to educate the public about light pollution and reduce its effect on dark skies, wildlife and human health.
Dark skies and dry air make southern Arizona the most important astronomical site in North America and one of the most important in the world. It is home to three of the world’s top observatories, dozens of commercial and private observatories and thousands of amateur astronomers, many of whom conduct professional-level research. The University of Arizona recently estimated the total value of investment in astronomy facilities and instruments in southern Arizona at $808 million, with another $588 million planned or under way.
The Yuma lights will eventually stretch for 9.1 miles around the San Luis Port of Entry. They are the result of a law Bush signed in October that authorized 700 miles of fencing, including a combination of lighting, sensors, cameras and barriers, along the Southwest border. The law, which was not fully funded, calls for the fence to cover all but five miles of the Arizona border and includes a 28-mile test “virtual fence” in the Sasabe area that was supposed to begin operation by June 13, but has been delayed by technical problems.
The Yuma lights have astronomers, who have worked with the Border Patrol, asking, “How did this happen?”
They also alerted them that they needed to get involved, said Gent, 59, who retired to Sierra Vista so he could conduct research on the brightness variability of stars from his backyard.
“We’re trying to meet Border Patrol and say, ‘Please, focus on infrared lights or explore other technologies, but don’t destroy the night sky for us,’” Gent said.
The Border Patrol has not said whether it will install Yuma-style lights in other parts of Arizona.
“There are plans to add additional infrastructure,” Border Patrol spokesman Xavier Rios said. “That includes additional lighting, all-weather patrol roads, fencing and so forth. Specifics, I don’t have that right now.”
Rios said the Yuma lights are based on lights in Naco that astronomers helped the Border Patrol retrofit five years ago with shields to cut glare, though he conceded the Yuma lights are not shielded.
Doug Snyder, an amateur astronomer in Palominas who made the first comet sighting in Cochise County and led the 2002 effort to shield the Naco lights, said the Yuma lights bear no resemblance to those in Naco, “unless they mean they both give off light.” The Yuma lights “are much much higher and much brighter.”
Richard Green, director of the Mount Graham Observatory, northeast of Tucson, said the lights in Yuma are “extraordinarily poorly designed.” The lights waste energy and reduce nighttime visibility because they produce too much light, causing eyes to act as if it were daytime, he said.
“You can’t see anything in the surrounding darkness. It lets people hide in the shadows,” he said. “It was a major error in terms of accomplishing what (the Border Patrol) wanted to accomplish.”
Several astronomers said they would like the Border Patrol to create a national standard based on the Naco lights to ensure all lighting along the border is more effective, less polluting and cheaper.
If more lights similar to those in Yuma are installed, Gent said, “Can you imagine what that’s going to cost? And at taxpayers’ expense. They could do much more with much less electricity if they did it right.”
Environmentalists are less optimistic that good design could help wildlife negotiate border lights.
“For some transborder species, lights effectively act as a wall because they won’t go near them,” said Travis Longcore, an ecologist with The Urban Wildlands Group, a Los Angeles conservation organization. Lights keep animals such as the endangered ocelot from critical routes between habitats.
Lights can also disorient birds, disturb the habits of nocturnal creatures such as snakes and the animals they prey on and lure insects away from where birds depend on them, said Longcore, who recently co-edited the first booklength look at the topic, “Ecological Consequences of Artificial Night Lighting.”
The impact on southern Arizona, home to one of the most biodiverse deserts in the world, could be devastating, he said.
“We don’t realize how much activity goes on at night,” he said. “This kind of thing is setting off a pollution bomb for these species.”
Astronomers have been working for decades to protect Arizona’s skies. In 1972, they helped Tucson develop one of the country’s first comprehensive light control ordinances. It mandated that all streetlights be shielded so light would pour onto streets, not into the sky. Pima County quickly followed suit. The laws became the model for lighting ordinances around the country.
Astronomers say the Border Patrol has been sensitive to their concerns. In 2003, the International Dark-Sky Association gave then-Tucson sector chief David Aguilar, who now heads the entire agency, an award for his help fixing the Naco lights. And astronomers from Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins negotiated with the agency to move a planned radio repeater farther down the mountain so it would not interfere with the observatory’s radio telescopes.
Two weeks ago, Border Patrol Assistant Sector Chief John Fitzpatrick, who declined a request for an interview with the Tucson Citizen, met with Whipple astronomers to discuss the potential impact of the permanent checkpoint planned for Interstate 19 and other plans for border lights and radar.
“It went well,” Dan Brocious of the observatory said. “We established communication. Now we’re waiting for details.”
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