By THE NEW MEXICAN
February 23, 2007

To what might be its everlasting credit, the New Mexico Legislature in 1999 enacted the Night Sky Protection Act. It recognized not just the beauty of our state's skies, but their economic value as well.

For more than a century, travelers from the East's smudged and glaring atmosphere have raved not only about the blue above them in the daylight, but also about the moon, the stars, the planets so bright above them at night.

New Mexico, many of them concluded, is worth many a return visit -- maybe a change of residence ...
But the more people who came here, the more lights they plugged in -- and the harder it became to enjoy a renowned resource. The tourism industry, not to mention economic development so often spun from visits to our state, stood to take a hit if New Mexico became indistinguishable from the brightly lighted sprawl of Dallas-Forth Worth, Phoenix-Mesa or Los Angeles-San Diego.

An effort led in the House of Representatives by Democrat Rhonda King of Stanley and Republican Pauline Gubbels of Albuquerque struck a nerve with fellow legislators on both sides of the aisle. Night-sky protection gained a statutory foothold. Aimed at outdoor-lighting fixtures, the law amounted mainly to guidelines for putting hoods on bulbs, and for replacing mercury-vapor lights with effective, but less glary bulbs. Fixtures would have to be aimed below horizontal.

The law, sensibly enough, exempted lights of less than 150 watts, although the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance, a major advocate of the law, campaigned for voluntary shielding of porchlights and the like. The Night Sky Protection Act was a good start -- but more was, and still is, needed.

This week, the state Senate approved, 32-3, a bill providing that the state "shall enforce" the law -- instead of the "may enforce" language in the original law. It's an overdue step -- and we salute Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming for shepherding the proposal through the Senate. We urge the House to approve it, too -- but something else is needed: money. The Legislature should make an appropriation to the state Construction Industries Division giving it the people it needs to review building plans and be sure that the lighting for new construction complies with the law. Had CID been given the support it needs, perhaps such recent projects as the Pojoaque fire station would have come with proper lighting.

As an official building, it should be an example for others; same for a new Motor Vehicle Division office in Deming, which went up with broadcast-glare fixtures when downward-guided ones could have been used. As more and more buildings go up around the state, they'll sport lots of lighting fixtures. The time to regulate them is before they're bolted on. Night-sky protection, for all its urgency, was conceded by even its most optimistic supporters to be a gradual process -- but it shouldn't be a one-step-forward, two-steps-back affair.

Building-supply manufacturers have developed all kinds of creative equipment for dimming and directing light. When old fixtures are replaced, that's what should be used. As for new construction, ni hablar. Encourage your legislators to strengthen the Night Sky Protection Act.

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