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Let’s Enjoy Our Dark Nights

Column by Hal Walter

Light Pollution – April 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT NEVER QUITE MADE SENSE to me why somebody would wish to install a security light.

Sure, I can see how a yard light could be helpful in the winter when I arrive at home late in the evening and need to unload my vehicle, feed my critters and round up some firewood. But the negative aspects of security lights make my Petzl Micro — a small headlamp that runs practically forever on two AA batteries — seem like a much better alternative.

Security lights cast a ghastly, ugly pall on everything within range of their pale, spectrumless light. They attract bugs. They light the way for criminals to locate your home, and show them around your place once they’re on your property. Security lights are not cheap to install, and once installed there’s more expense — they require electricity to operate, $8 to $10 a month for most.

But the worst offense committed by security lights is the dimming of the stars, planets and moon.

Over the years, for various reasons, I have from time to time found myself wandering homeward after dark out of the mountains. Just a few short years ago the smattering of lights in the Wet Mountain Valley was somewhat of a comfort, a sign of civilization below. Viewed from above, a few lights were symbols of warm, cozy homes, safety, a small galaxy of stars on the ground. Once, after getting turned around in a deep canyon in the Wet Mountains on a moonless night, I climbed a ridge and regained my sense of direction from security lights at the old Mudcliffe Ski Area — yard-light navigation is an outdoor skill few pioneers ever developed.

Now there are more than a few of these lights, and comfort is not always what they bring to mind. The explosive growth in Custer County has brought with it an increase in ambient light and a decrease in the number of stars above.

Some of these lights are pure annoyances, and by themselves don’t have an overwhelming effect on the night sky. One trophy house perched on Lookout Ridge looks like the Starship Enterprise coming in for a landing; I wonder if the owner is trying to make a statement: “Look at me, my house is bigger, sits on higher ground and has more lights than yours!”

The amber glow of security lights at the new Custer County jail, though hooded, give us a small taste of the industrial prison machine. Most nights you can make out the dull pall of the real industrial prison complex in the Florence/CaƱon City area to the northeast. A bright reminder of true darkness.

In February and March, when Saturn, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury lined up behind the setting sun, I was saddened to see such a rare celestial sight hanging over the lights of the new house to the west of mine where there used to be just open space. Fortunately these neighbors have yet to install a security light. Still, I can’t quite get used to the porch light and the shine of windows where the elk used to hang out this time of year.

Another new neighbor who put in a modular home about two miles across the little valley known as Boneyard Park illuminates his little kingdom with light powered by a generator. Unless the wind is really howling, I can usually hear this machine at night, the dull drone of the engine, wired to a lightbulb that often shines until the wee hours of the morning. It takes energy to make energy. This particular energy happens to be bad — the double whammy of light pollution and noise pollution.

WHY DO PEOPLE need these lights? I’m sure seeing at night is not the real motivation. If that were the case, a flashlight or headlamp such as my Petzl would be a cheap and easy solution. Or — imagine this — turn on the lights to accomplish a task outside after dark; then turn the lights back off. This doesn’t work with security lights installed by the power company because they do not have switches.

I think the real motivating factor for the installation of these lights is fear. And I’m talking about a larger issue than just being afraid of the dark. It’s been said that most people do things with either fear or love as a motive. Since love for the landscape — including the night sky — could hardly be a motive for installing a light, then fear it must be.

But fear is a much larger issue. Many of the people with security lights moved here from metropolitan areas. While some truly may have moved here out of a love for the region, it’s apparent that fear motivated many others. How many times have you heard that so-and-so moved here to get away from crime, racial strife, or rush-hour traffic? In all of these cases, these people are running from something rather than moving to something. Fear is the motivating factor.

ONCE THEY’RE HERE, these people need a security light. Again, it’s fear at work. Miles removed from muggings, drive-by shootings, and racial rioting, they’re still scared. Somehow they think a lightbulb on a post will protect them not only from the stuff they ran away from, but the stuff they ran to. The bogeyman is following them around.

Then again, some folks just want to have a yard light. Some Custer County locals, led by Smokey Jack, have formed a group called “Dark Skies,” to help foster understanding about how these lights affect everyone’s environment. The group seeks to educate people about how to keep their light out of the sky and on the ground where it can be of use.

The group has received overwhelming support from the community, and, due to a number of sizable donations, has a standing offer for the time being to provide a hood to any homeowner with a non-shielded security light. In addition, Dark Skies is conducting a survey that will be used to petition the county for an ordinance requiring that all new dawn-to-dusk security lights being installed, or replaced, be fully shielded.

Thanks to Dark Skies’ efforts, all three electrical companies serving Custer County offer shields for security lights, and a new state of awareness about these lights in the county has been achieved. Recently the Town of Westcliffe passed an ordinance requiring that security lights in new subdivisions be shielded.

Still , there are some who resist. Smokey tells the story of how she approached one neighbor — a part-time resident who leaves his security light on full time — with a security-light hood wrapped with a bow, and a freshly butchered free-range chicken as a peace offering. He wouldn’t accept either.

Some people take forever to get a bright idea.

In the meantime I’ll be out chopping kindling, tossing hay and performing minor surgery on my vehicles with my trusty Petzl headlamp. It gets the job done, doesn’t bother the neighbors, and when I turn it off the stars are still shining brightly.

The International Dark Skies Association lights up the Internet at with a beacon of information on the impact of security lights. Petzl Micro headlamps can be purchased from Campmor for $23.99. Hal Walter has lived 15 years in Custer County without the benefit of a security light, but he’s hardly been in the dark.

International Dark Skies Association