Keeping the star-studded sky dark

The Milky Way sets over the Hoodoos Trail in Big Bend Ranch State Park. 

Something that fascinates both tourists and locals alike are the night skies in the Big Bend, and for Big Bend Ranch State Park Interpretive Ranger Amber Harrison, promoting responsible outdoor lighting and raising awareness on environmental impacts is a win-win for both the environment and the local economy.

A Terlingua Ranch resident, Harrison is applying to the International Dark Sky Association to have the Black Gap and Elephant Mountain wildlife management areas designated as dark sky sanctuaries.

Harrison has been with the park since 2013, after arriving from Tucson, Ariz. An archaeologist by training, she relocated to the Big Bend where she was a park trail ranger, and later an interpreter for the Barton Warnock Visitors Center in Terlingua. Due to the pandemic, the state park has halted public programming such as star parties, but is doing outreach and working with wildlife management areas and other local advocacy groups to get dark skies designations through the International Dark Sky Association.

The Association is the leading international agency specializing in dark sky preservation, conservation, outreach, and education. Harrison has lofty goals for the designation, and is hopeful it will raise awareness of light pollution in the Big Bend region.

Thanks to Harrison’s efforts, in 2017 Big Bend Ranch State Park was designated by the Association as a Dark Sky Park, and she is now working to include the Chinati Mountains natural area in that designation, adding several thousand acres to the already protected portion. According to Harrison, the application process is intensive, and she must work on lighting inventory and management plans, and take photographs to measure artificial light, capturing data over a six-month period. She hopes to complete the application for Black Gap at the end of May, and Elephant Mountain sometime in the fall.

Besides the state park, Harrison noted that Big Bend Conservation Alliance and West Texas Friends of the Night Sky were working together on dark sky initiatives in the area.

“One of the important things moving forward is making this a success over time - to get as many people involved and raise awareness about good lighting practices in general,” she explained. “If we continue to develop and grow, put lights up everywhere, and not pay attention to environmental impacts, that will cause great harm to the natural resources that are preserved in Big Bend Ranch State Park, Big Bend National Park, and McDonald Observatory.”

Marfa, Alpine, Marathon down to Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Terlingua are what Harrison dubed a “triangle” that attracts tourism. She said light pollution would also have a negative impact on plants and wildlife.

“If that natural environment is damaged by too much development, those resources will no longer be a favorable place for people to come to vacation,” said Harrison.

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