The San Diego Union-Tribune

Dark skies, bright future

Borrego seeks recognition as an astronomy haven


May 1, 2008

In Borrego Springs, the “season” is pretty well over now. The spring wildflowers have faded away. The mercury is creeping toward the triple digits of summer. The fall and winter population of about 8,000 is beginning to recede to the 3,000 stalwarts who are year-round residents.

Yet one thing in this tiny desert town remains constant. It is spectacular. And it happens only at night.

“You can see stars all the way down to the horizon,” said Scott Kardel, public affairs coordinator at the Palomar Observatory. “It's very dark – not in a scary, insecure way, but in a beautiful way.”

The Milky Way – which cannot be seen from downtown San Diego, nor from backyards in most of the country – is visible here in all its gleaming glory.

Borrego's inky night skies have long lured professional and amateur astronomers. In 2003, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was named one of the Top 10 stargazing locations in the nation by USA Today.

Now a group of Borregans has embarked on an ambitious project to ensure the celebration and preservation of this jet-dark canopy. They are working to get their town designated as the world's second Dark-Sky Community, a title that would make the area even more of a magnet for sky-loving tourists.

To date only Flagstaff, Ariz., holds this distinction, which was awarded in 2001 by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Founded in 1988, the 10,000-member nonprofit organization based in Tucson, Ariz., is dedicated to building awareness of light pollution as it affects astronomy and the public, and to promote dark-sky friendly outdoor lighting.

For homeowners and businesses, that means shielding the tops and sides of outdoor lighting fixtures over 5,000 lumens of brightness, limiting the use of outdoor lighting at night, and using light-efficient fixtures. For the community, it would also mean ensuring that street lights, for example, used low-pressure sodium lights that illuminate with less light pollution.

The association defines a dark-sky area as a town, city or other community that has shown exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky through implementation and enforcement of lighting codes, dark-sky education and citizen support of dark skies.

“In Borrego, one can actually see the stars,” said Dennis Mammana, an astronomer, night-sky photographer and resident of Borrego Springs. (He writes the weekly Stargazer column in Quest.) “I don't mean just a handful or so that are visible from most suburban areas around Southern California, but thousands.

“We can regularly see such elusive sights as the Zodiacal Light, the Andromeda Galaxy and, on occasion, even the Northern Lights,” he said. “ 'Awesome' is much too feeble a word to describe it.”

Kardel of Palomar Observatory noted that enjoying a truly dark sky is a rarity for most of us these days.

“A lot of people nowadays are detached from the night sky, unlike the way it was 50 or 100 years ago,” he said. “I blame TV and air conditioning. People don't sit around on the front porch talking and so forth. We have a lot of reasons to keep us indoors now.”

But finding ways to preserve what is already there at night is essential to scientists and civilians alike, Kardel said.

“The dark sky is a vanishing resource, not from an astronomical point of view where we need to keep skies dark for research. It's really important for people to have perspective and appreciation for the night sky,” he said.

“Every light in the county actually has some contribution toward sky glow and sky brightness. If you have a lot of bad lights, it gradually makes it harder for us to do our work and harder to enjoy the night skies.”

Community support

The idea of getting Borrego Springs' skies certified percolated last spring among members of the San Diego chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association, according to Mammana. He broached the subject to Borrego Springs' community leaders, but the summer heat put the topic on the back burner until cooler autumn months arrived.

In October, the Borrego Springs Dark-Sky Coalition met for the first time; it has convened every month since. The volunteer group consists of Mammana and Kardel, residents, astronomers and representatives from the Anza-Borrego Foundation and Institute, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association.

Dark skies make the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park a mecca for professional and amateur astronomers. At times, it's even possible to see the light of the aurora borealis. Photo by Dennis Mammana.
Low-lighting the way

You can have your outdoor lights and still be dark-sky friendly. Here are some tips:

Use outdoor lights at night only when and where they are needed.

Use fully shielded, light-efficient fixtures aimed directly at the ground.

Incorporate timers and sensors to shut off lights when they are not needed.

Look for light fixtures with the International Dark-Sky Association's seal of approval, which ensures minimal light pollution.

Star parties

Dennis Mammana's speaking and star party schedule begins in October with programs at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the Springs at Borrego, Joshua Tree National Park and other sites. Keep up with his celestial photography and upcoming events by visiting

Fellow stargazers

To learn more about the wild blue (black) yonder, visit these Web sites:

American Astronomical Society:

International Dark-Sky Association:

Mount Laguna Observatory:

Oceanside Photo & Telescope Astronomical Society:

Palomar Observatory:

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center:

San Diego Astronomy Association:

In a time-exposure photograph taken in Borrego's Coachwhip Canyon, the Earth's rotation creates the illusion that the stars are wheeling around the North Star.  Photo by Dennis Mammana.
With 500 miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas and miles of hiking trails, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California.Its undeveloped expanse is the perfect foil for Borrego's dark skies.

“We are very lucky with the geography,” said Betsy Knaack, executive director of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association and a coalition member. “We have this combination of being surrounded by the state park, being a relatively small community, and the fact the desert air is very dry most of the time, we have very clear, dark skies.”

Southern California has more amateur astronomers than any similar area on the planet, according to Mammana. Nearly every community from San Diego to Orange County to Temecula to Oceanside has its own astronomy club, he said, pointing out that the five largest groups alone add up to more than 3,000 members.

The Oceanside Photo & Telescope Astronomical Society has an official dark-sky site in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where amateurs regularly set up telescopes and cameras. Scores of others visit Borrego Springs more informally.

Also, for the past 15 years, Borrego Springs has hosted Nightfall (, an annual gathering of amateur astronomers from all over the region. This year's festival, featuring lectures, demonstrations and telescope viewing, is set for Oct. 30-Nov. 2 and is open to the public.

Proving the case

For Borrego Springs to receive dark-sky designation, it must meet four requirements:

Have a quality-comprehensive lighting code.Borrego Springs already has this by virtue of being in San Diego County, which has a lighting ordinance more stringent than asked for by the IDA. San Diego's strict code was enacted in the 1980s, partly in response to Palomar Observatory's need for dark skies.

Currently in the works are efforts to improve some street lights and to educate the community about proper night lighting and about uplighting pollution (light that escapes upward instead of reflecting down on a sidewalk or front door).

Community commitment to dark skies and quality lighting.The coalition has held forums, distributed fliers and delivered public-service announcements. It has received written endorsements from the office of County Supervisor Bill Horn (whose district includes Borrego Springs), the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the Desert Area Initiative, an environmental group.

Obtain broad support for dark skies from a wide range of community organizations. Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce & Visitors' Bureau, the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, the Palomar Observatory and numerous astronomy clubs and societies have endorsed the effort. The community's biweekly newspaper, the Borrego Sun, has provided a forum for people to voice opinions. To date there have been no opponents, according to Knaack.

Achieve success in light-pollution control.The coalition must cite at least 10 projects in Borrego Springs that demonstrate effective application of the local lighting code. The state park's Visitor Center, the Boys & Girls Club at the Borrego Badlands Skate Park, the newly remodeled Little League field, the Chamber of Commerce building and the post office are among projects with dark-sky-friendly lighting that the coalition will list.

The first multipage draft of the application was presented at a coalition meeting April 25. The task force wants to submit the final application by mid-May.

The Dark-Sky Association meets for its milestone 20th annual general meeting June 8-10 in Tucson, and backers hope the group will approve Borrego Springs' certification then.

That's in plenty of time for 2009, which has been dubbed the International Year of Astronomy by the International Astronomical Union. The aim of the observance is to stimulate worldwide interest in astronomy, especially among young people, under the central theme “The Universe, Yours to Discover.”

Kardel thinks the designation for Borrego Springs definitely will be approved. “The interest in the IDA is there as well,” he said. “They are eager to have another community step forward. As a second community steps forward, maybe others will.”

The small city of Flagstaff was favored with the designation because it is home to the Clark Telescope at Lowell Observatory, the U.S. Naval Observatory's Flagstaff Station, the National Undergraduate Research Observatory, Braeside Observatory and the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer. It is also a dark-sky refuge for hundreds of amateur astronomers.

Borrego Springs – a scorching desert close to sea level – seems to have little in common with the mountainous, often snowy Flagstaff at elevation 7,000 feet. But Kardel says the two extreme environments actually have an important common denominator.

“A lot of the population in both places is in tune with the environment,” he said. “I think that sense of being aware of the environment includes the night sky and includes the idea of conservation.

“It's all really interconnected in some way. That is what can bring some communities an interest in this.”

Mammana is a desert dweller who absolutely sees the interconnection.

“The sky is as much a part of our desert environment as the land, and deserves as much preservation and protection,” he said.

Looking toward the future, Mammana said he hopes Borrego's designation as a Dark-Sky Community will be followed by the designation of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park as California's first International Dark-Sky Park.

“These designations would help emphasize the extraordinary beauty of Borrego's natural setting, and would help make this community a destination for all who wish to experience the heavens in their full splendor.”


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