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Plan for Big Bend “Dark Sky Reserve” Takes Crucial Step Forward With Presidio County Vote

(Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

Astronomers and community organizers have been pushing officials in Far West Texas to adopt stricter rules on outdoor lighting, part of a broader effort to establish an international dark sky “reserve.”

By Travis Bubenik

A sweeping plan to protect the Big Bend region’s famously dark night skies took a crucial step forward on Wednesday, as Presidio County officials joined the area’s other local governments in adopting stricter outdoor lighting rules.

The vote by Presidio County commissioners followed similar moves in Brewster, Jeff Davis and Reeves counties, along with the cities of Alpine, Marfa, Balmorhea, Valentine and Presidio, according to a count from the local advocacy group Big Bend Conservation Alliance.

While this rural corner of Texas still has some of the darkest night skies in the U.S., there have been growing concerns in recent years about an uptick in light pollution, particularly from oilfield activity in the nearby Permian Basin.

In response, officials with McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis are leading an effort to establish a “Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve” that would cover more than 9.7 million acres and be among the largest of its kind in the world.

The observatory says the reserve would help protect astronomers’ research while also helping attract tourists who are drawn to the region’s stunning views of the stars.

According to organizers, to qualify for a formal reserve designation from the Arizona-based non-profit International Dark Sky Association, all local governments within the boundaries of the proposed reserve needed to update their outdoor lighting rules.

With Wednesday’s vote, Presidio County became the last to do so.

“There’s really nothing in our way now,” said Bill Wren, Dark Skies Initiative Coordinator at McDonald Observatory.

The proposed reserve is still far from a done deal. To apply for the designation, Wren still has to draft a “lighting management plan” for the entire region and gather letters of support for the proposal, among other requirements. But he said the vote in Presidio County pushes the effort onto the next phase.

“There’s no major hurdle left to overcome,” Wren said in an interview after Wednesday’s meeting, during which he briefed commissioners on the plan. “That’s kind of why we tackled the ordinances first, was because that was critical.”

All Presidio County commissioners present at Wednesday’s meeting voted to adopt the stricter lighting rules, which include requirements that most outdoor lights be shielded or pointed down. The officials did agree to change language in a draft of the new rules to clarify that the ordinance applies to the “county” and not a “city,” but otherwise adopted the new ordinance as-is.

The draft ordinance provided to Marfa Public Radio by the county does not contain any reference to possible penalties, but Texas counties have a variety of options for enforcing local ordinances in general, including pursuing court-ordered injunctions against violators.

“I think our dark skies is something that we take for granted,” Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara, the county’s top elected official, said before Wednesday’s vote. “I think we’re very fortunate.”

The International Dark Sky Association responded to the news of the reserve effort’s latest step on Twitter Wednesday.

“We love to see it!” the association wrote.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.