Maintaining Sisters' starry skies
Last updated 5/5/2023 at 5:05pm
We're in the midst of International Dark Skies Week - April 15-22 - celebrating the star-spangled beauty of the night sky that is dear to the hearts of many folks in Sisters. It's also something that is in danger of fading away, as increased growth and more aggressive use of lighting threatens to turn Sisters from a rural outpost of nightly wonder to just another semi-urban area.
We don't have to lose our starry, starry nights.
According to the McDonald Observatory's Dark Skies Initiative (DSI), "We can reclaim vast amounts of energy currently wasted inadvertently into the night sky ... by using light fixtures that are shielded to reflect light down where it is needed, as well as using the smallest number of lights and lowest wattage bulbs necessary to effectively light an area."
DSI asserts that "leading by example through the installation of downward-pointing outdoor light fixtures is a great place for home and building owners to start. Once people see it in action, and understand its implications for cost savings and enhanced visibility, they are far more likely to adopt good lighting practices on their own."
Downward-directed light, shielded by a fixture and using low-wattage bulbs, is the most fundamental form of dark-skies-friendly lighting. For security and to illuminate areas you might need to access in the dark (your trash can for example), a motion sensor light that comes on when you need it then goes off is better than a light that is always on.
Both the city of Sisters and Deschutes County have "Dark Skies" ordinances. The City's reads that:
"All nonexempt outdoor lighting fixtures shall have directed shielding so as to prevent direct light from the fixture from shining beyond the property limits where the fixture is installed. This means that a person standing at the adjacent property line would not see the light emitting source."
That ordinance is not easy to enforce; staff could spend every night out being the light police.
As local astronomer Ron Thorkildson noted, "While Sisters still has amazing stars at night, many individuals and businesses have installed light fixtures that contribute to light pollution. When such light fixtures are replaced by lamps with shields, glare into the sky is reduced, money and energy are saved, and the light is directed where it is needed. "While many members of the Sisters community value being able to view the multitude of stars in our dark skies, our community is growing. With new developments occurring in the area, it is important to recognize the resource our community has in our dark skies, and that we need to be deliberate in the engineering of our lighting."
Thorkildson made those observations back in 2015. With Sisters' current rate of growth, the issue only becomes more acute.
Maintaining dark skies really requires voluntary compliance from people who want to be good neighbors and good stewards of Sisters' natural environment. In many cases, that's a matter of education. As the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) notes, many people may not even be aware that their lighting is creating a problem for their neighbors and community.
The IDA website (www.darksky.org) offers advice on lighting - and how to productively approach your neighbors about theirs.
"We suggest taking the following steps to educate your neighbor, and by extension your community, about the value of dark-sky-friendly lighting," IDSA states.
• Make friends, not enemies. Your neighbors probably don't even realize their lighting is bothersome.
• Stay positive and don't argue. Be tactful and understanding about your neighbor's right to light their property.
• Suggest alternatives to their current fixture. Ask them to move the light, shield it, or add a motion sensor so it's activated only when needed. Offer to help get this done.
• Be informative. Talking to your neighbor is a great opportunity to be an advocate for good lighting. There are many reasons to use darksky-friendly lighting. Read up on the issues regarding light pollution. IDA also has a number of educational resources that can be useful.
• It's useful to know the local costs of electricity (cents per kWh) and the local lighting control ordinances. This information is available on most city websites, from your regional utility company, and on your utility bill. IDA also has this useful guide to help you find out if there is a lighting ordinance in your town.
• You may also want to compile a list of local businesses or homes in the neighborhood with good-quality lighting as an example of effective security measures that are dark-sky friendly.
• Having a list of shielded light fixtures to provide as alternatives to your neighbor's current lighting is also recommended. Use IDA's Fixture Seal of Approval database to find dark-sky-friendly fixtures and devices.
• Don't dismiss their need to feel safe. Remember that home is a place where everyone wants to feel relaxed and safe.
• Explain that light trespass is a form of light pollution, but we strongly advise that you don't threaten legal action. The idea of a lawsuit can create bad feelings among the whole neighborhood.
• Remember that everyone wants the same thing: a chance to relax in his or her own environment. Work together to create an atmosphere that benefits the community. It's not difficult or expensive to each do our bit to make Sisters more dark-skies-friendly. It just requires a little awareness and effort to help each other (not) see the light.
For more information on International Dark Skies Week, visit https://idsw.darksky.org.
Editor's note: A version of this story appeared in The Nugget's Home & Garden section in 2021.