By Deb Murphy
The first known street light dates back to 9th or 10th century Arabia, the town of Cordoba to be exact. London Mayor Sir Henry Barton decreed the streets would be lit in 1417 and Ben Franklin is credited with candle-lit streets in Philadelphia in the 1700s.
Like all good things, humans have taken lighting to extremes. The backlash is a movement to protect the night skies, rather than fade the constellations out with neon and LEDs. Now dark skies are a tourist attraction and Inyo County may be one of the darkest in California.
April Zrelak, one of a small group of night skies people in Owens Valley, has found an ideal spot for local and visiting star gazers to enjoy our dark sky—a portion of the Independence Creek Campground. She made her presentation at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting and got approval for the project.
People flock to Death Valley to star gaze. As Inyo’s Deputy CAO Rick Benson told the Board, star gazing can be a valuable part of the Owens Valley experience.
Zrelak made her point of insidious light pollution with a satellite photograph that showed a large blob of brightness from Las Vegas and small dots in the middle of inky black that is Inyo County. Light doesn’t just pollute its immediate location—it spreads its glow beyond its footprint.
The 9,000 sq. ft. area at the campground has been cleared of brush; boulders have been moved to define the area. The location is accessible along trails from town and the Eastern California Museum. Light visible from traffic and billboards on U.S. Highway 395 will be blocked with educational panels, letting people know what to look for and where to look.
With the Supervisors’ okay, the only thing left to do is get approval from landowner Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
It may be hard for native Owens Valleyites to grasp the specialness of dark skies, but for those from major urban areas our night skies come as a startling surprise. There are actual, bright points of light up there. Zrelak has made it her 20-year mission to make sure keep we keep on being startled.
The real culprit are LED bulbs. They’re cheaper and brighter than the old incandescent style light bulbs. Zrelak isn’t at war against LEDs, she just wants them shielded and directed toward what needs to be lit up. The perfect example is the rest stop between Independence and Big Pine. The lights near the turn-off are visible in enough time to make the turn. The lights in the parking lot are hardly visible until you’re right next to them, but the parking area is fully and safely lit. That’s Zrelak’s goal for outdoor lighting throughout the valley.
It’s not just the aesthetics, she explained in a recent interview. The American Medical Association supports the reduction of light pollution and glare, advocating for the use of energy efficient, fully-shielded outdoor lighting. There are also studies indicating an impact on critters and plant life from light pollution, Zrelak said.
Light pollution impacts human health by messing with our circadian rhythms and the production of melatonin. Our bodies are programmed to be awake in daylight and deeply asleep in the dark. That’s the way human beings have functioned up until the last two or three hundred years. When your neighbor’s exterior lights illuminate your treetops all night long, you’re not going to get the level of sleep your body needs.
In terms of safety, motion sensor lights work better at keeping bears and burglars away from homes.
The Independence Dark Sky Park won’t cost the County a dime. Zrelak has presentations lined up for local groups willing to help fund the project.