Bill Wren recalls how fascinated he was by the night sky when he was a child.
“I remember many evenings lying in the grass looking up at the stars and wondering about the world beyond my immediate surroundings,” Wren said.
A veteran astronomer at the McDonald Observatory, Wren is concerned that children of future generations may not be able to experience the wonder of a brilliant starry sky because of light pollution.
“In the United States, three-quarters of the population live in and around major cities where they can’t see the Milky Way,” he said. “Naturally dark night skies are vanishing and becoming really hard to find.”
Much of the Texas Hill Country still has night skies dark enough to see the Milky Way, but satellite images of the United States at night show a massive swath of brightly glowing yellow and white dots — light pollution — from the East Coast to Central Texas.
Take a closer look and you can see a vertical line running through the center of Texas along the edge of the Hill Country. East of that line is the I-35 corridor, including the bright hubs of Austin and San Antonio. But west of the line, the satellite images show it is still dark — and a group of passionate volunteers in the Hill Country is working to keep it that way.
“We are on the edge of night,” said Ken Kattner, a business attorney and amateur astronomer. “We have to put a stake in the ground now, and try to educate people and point out that if we don’t do something now, it’s going to look like the East Coast.”
Kattner, who built the Putman Mountain Observatory for viewing the stars northwest of Fredericksburg, is working with a network of Hill Country citizens to help preserve the dark nighttime skies.
Barbara Baggett is one of those citizens. She moved from Austin to Utopia, Texas four years ago.
“When I moved here, I made a resolution to get an initiative going here because I love living out in the country where I don’t see lights from other houses,” she said. “I like to see the sky.”
Working with the volunteer-based organization Keep Utopia Beautiful and her counterparts at Keep It Real-ly Beautiful, Baggett is leading a grassroots effort supported by the Hill Country Alliance to preserve dark skies in Uvalde, Real, and Bandera counties. Hill Country communities including Dripping Springs, Fredericksburg, Llano, and Mason have passed outdoor lighting ordinances, which include guidelines for protecting dark skies.
Six Hill Country counties (Blanco, Uvalde, Real, Bandera, Kimble, and Mason) have passed resolutions supporting night sky protection efforts. Unfortunately, Hill Country counties do not have the authority to pass outdoor lighting ordinances.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is joining the movement to protect dark skies. In 2014, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area became the first state park in the Hill Country to receive an IDA Dark-Sky Park designation, and others are following suit. Superintendent Doug Cochran is concerned that light from surrounding areas is beginning to dim the beautiful night sky at Enchanted Rock.
“We are being invaded from San Antonio and Austin,” he said. “You can see light glow on the horizon. It’s coming our way.”
To keep the march of light pollution from reaching the park, Kattner is leading a citizens’ effort to create a more regional Hill Country Dark-Sky Reserve with Fredericksburg, Llano, and Mason as the boundary cities, and Enchanted Rock serving as the core.
Another essential component of dark-sky preservation is the participation of Hill Country electric providers. For example, Central Texas Electric Co-op (CTEC), which serves 11 counties in the region, including a large area bordering Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, has adopted a dark-sky resolution and is installing dark-sky compliant outdoor lighting fixtures.
Even as these efforts throughout the Hill Country take root, San Antonio and Austin continue to grow, and their lights shine increasingly into Hill Country skies.
Both San Antonio and Austin have, in the past, adopted outdoor lighting policies that help control the spread of light pollution. This week, however, at the urging of the Real Estate Council of San Antonio, the San Antonio Planning Commission voted to remove dark sky provisions from the city’s proposed Sustainability Plan — a part of the wider SA Tomorrow comprehensive master plan.
City Council will discuss the plan on Wednesday and is expected to vote on its adoption on Aug. 11. They are able to reinstate the plan’s dark sky provisions if they desire.
“Without leadership from our rapidly urbanizing cities, we stand to lose all of the groundwork we’ve laid to protect night skies in the Hill Country,” said Katherine Romans, Hill Country Alliance executive director. “San Antonio was on the right track in including the consideration of night skies in their plan. It is a shame to see those portions gutted for the sake of unfettered development.”
To learn more about the importance of dark skies and how you can help, visit the Hill Country Alliance website.
Top image: Stars over a rail bridge. Photo by Todd Grubbs.