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Light pollutions nips top of the world

Roger Peterson Leadville Correspondent
Light pollution is becoming a problem in the High Country. Leadville's night skies are soon to be protected via ordinance.
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LEADVILLE – When Milton’s bear – the Big Dipper – finally fades completely from view, we’ll have nobody but ourselves to thank for it.

The dome of heaven and its bowl of stars never have been far out of reach at more than 10,000 feet above sea level in Leadville. But with the encroachment of civilization and the light pollution that comes with it, the Milky Way sometimes can be difficult to see, even from backyards high in the mountains.

To get an idea of just how much light pollution exists in once remote Leadville, all it takes is a short trip away from the city’s nighttime glow to double the number of visible stars.



In an effort to make sure blinding mercury-vapor lighting doesn’t get out of hand in Lake County, a local man is pushing for legislation to promote “smart illumination” and preserve the darkness of the night sky in Leadville.

Brad Littlepage, a county planning commissioner, approached the City Council recently with the idea. He said it’s important to have specific lighting rules for residential and commercial properties.



“I feel we need an ordinance that has teeth,” Littlepage said. “This is one fix we can make cheaply and it will give us long-term gratification, so we can go outside, look up and see what this universe is all about.”

Lighting “litter”

Outdoor lighting takes a variety of forms, but not all serve their intended purpose or are pleasing to the eye. Members of the International Dark Sky Association, which fights light pollution, believe the use of high-quality outdoor lighting is the key to improving the nighttime environment.



Good lighting preserves the view of the night sky, saves energy and is more comfortable on the eyes, the group says. Light pollution blots out the beauty of the universe, contaminates the environment, offends neighbors and can cause accidents, the group argues, while very bright lights can visually confuse the nighttime ambiance by creating deep shadows within an over-lit area.

Often placed with security in mind, extremely bright light can actually have the opposite effect. It can create shadows that hide potentially dangerous objects or provides concealment for criminals. Misdirected or unshielded bright lights can produce “light trespass” that shines into neighboring yards and windows.

“The three main issues here are glare, light trespass and energy efficiency,” said Dr. Robert Stencel, astronomy professor at the University of Denver.

“There are the aesthetics of the starry sky. Many of us have moved to mountain areas for that reason, and we’re not ready to surrender that by allowing less-than-smart lighting to proliferate,” Stencel said. “We refer to bad lighting as litter.”

Shining examples

Lighting in Leadville and sparsely populated Lake County, for example, ranges from pleasing to offensive. The more obnoxious examples appear around the corporate commercial businesses located downtown and along North Poplar Street, where strong mercury-vapor lamps turn the darkness into artificial daylight.

In areas such as those, illumination assaults the eye, invades nearby residences and creates potentially dangerous conditions for passing drivers, says the International Dark Sky Association.

Solutions are simple. Light is necessary for safety and security, but shields combined with more muted, energy efficient sodium lights could create a more pleasing effect while providing plenty of illumination, says the International Dark Sky Association.

Re-directing lighting downward rather than allowing it to shine upward preserves views of the night sky. In short, high-quality lighting is the key, says the International Dark Sky Association.

Other lighting schemes about town are of the type star-gazers consider more pleasing to the eye. Most of Leadville’s neighborhood street lights are the more muted sodium lights that are directed toward the ground rather than to the sides and upward.

The placement of Victorian-style lanterns along Harrison Avenue has created what some consider a masterpiece of mood-generating ambient lighting. The post-card view from the top of Capitol Hill any night of the year is unforgettable, thanks to careful planning and sensible lighting.

Constellation conservation

Planners in many Colorado cities and towns are acquiring a great understanding of lighting. Denver has established regulations that reduce glare, lower light intensity, set light-trespass levels, limit hours of full illumination and allow for safe eye adaptation around abrupt changes in light level.

Glenwood Springs passed a light ordinance two years ago after receiving complaints from residents regarding overkill lighting at car dealerships and other commercial sites. City planners followed the municipal comprehensive plan as well as the example set by other Roaring Fork Valley towns to reduce glare and light pollution. They required lower light levels and shielding to cut down on the unwanted glow.

“I think it’s good in several ways,” said Jill Peterson, planner for the City of Glenwood Springs. “We like living in the mountains and want to preserve the night sky. There have also been benefits of conserving energy and preserving our quality of life.”

However, there are challenges, Peterson added, in the attempt to change. Requiring new construction to have sensible lighting is easy, but getting established businesses to make alterations can be difficult.

Leadville Mayor Bud Elliott said now is the time to act in order to preserve the town’s high-altitude view of the universe.

“The glare that people have to experience because of light coming through their windows is something they shouldn’t have to tolerate,” Elliott said. “The sooner we do it, the better off the city and county will be. I think it would be a shame if we lost our starry skies.”


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