The following editorial appeared in the Daily Sun:
How important are dark skies for the Flagstaff region?
The answer seems obvious with the recent news from Lowell Observatory that a European-based science consortium has designated northern Arizona as a finalist in its search for a site for a new $130 million telescope array.
If built, the telescopes would have a $10 million operating budget, which Lowell likely would manage.
The possible locations — one near Meteor Crater, another south of Seligman — are favored for their high number of clear days and nights, little snow, the flat terrain stretching to the horizon, and their proximity to transportation hubs and interstates for international travelers.
But most importantly, the sites have retained dark skies in an era when excessive lighting in many major cities has ruined serious astronomy for hundreds of miles in all directions.
So far, the Colorado Plateau in Arizona has kept the big-city glow at bay. Flagstaff and now Sedona have led the way in championing strict outdoor lighting codes that meet international dark skies standards. Last year, scientists and local business groups in Flagstaff and Tucson combined to lobby the Legislature to uphold the state ban on electronic billboards. Just because LED billboards are popular back East, where cities are already awash in light, doesn’t mean they are needed or even wanted in Arizona.
And the stakes are high. The so-called Cherenkov telescope array, named for the cosmic rays that it will monitor, would become part of $1 billion industry in Arizona. Even as the state has grown, high-elevation observatories near Flagstaff and Tucson have managed to maintain their attractiveness, in part by enlisting the cooperation of local and state officials in the Dark Skies movement.
That cooperation and the predictability it lends to the future of astronomy in Arizona has convinced the U.S. Navy and the Discovery Channel to make major new investments in telescopes in the Flagstaff region. The University of Arizona has committed to a major upgrade of its telescope array at Mount Graham.
Sedona activists took issue several years ago with plans by the Arizona Department of Transportation to add streetlights along Highway 89A through West Sedona. They went so far as to ask voters to take over the roadway so as to avoid the lighting.
But the ballot issue failed, and, the fears turned out to be overblown. ADOT installed low-intensity, canopied lights that a subsequent study showed have negligible impact on the city’s already dark skies. The council has now applied for official Dark Skies status, and we urge all Sedonans to get behind the city’s application as a way to send a message to astronomers worldwide that northern Arizona continues to be a haven for their calling.
As for the Cherenkov Array, the site selection committee might be making a visit to northern Arizona next month, and we urge local governments and other agencies to communicate the commitment this region has to maintaining dark skies. The updated Flagstaff Regional Plan backs up that commitment with specific recommended standards for outdoor lighting that we urge the city council to endorse before the site committee’s visit.
Beginning with Percival Lowell and his search for dry, clean air more than a century ago, Arizona has been a mecca for U.S. astronomers. Now international scientists have learned of those same natural assets along with dark skies, and we look forward to hosting them permanently in the future.