An Enlightening Interview, New Dark Sky President
Last updated 2/24/2023 at 11:16am
On January 22, while attending amateur astronomer Dr. Randolph Baron’s fascinating presentation on the Orion Nebula, hosted by the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association (ABDNHA), a fellow participant introduced himself as Tom Reinert, the new Board President of the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). This was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I scrapped all my plans for the next day and asked him if I could interview him. He graciously agreed.
Leaving the parking lot that evening, I noticed his Virginia license plate was DARK SKY. As I learned the next morning, apart from his family, which includes five grandchildren under the age of five, his life focus is now on keeping skies dark. His primary goals as President of IDA are to change the perception about dark skies and to get more assertive about eliminating light pollution.
Nancy McRae: How did you come to be President of the IDA?
Tom Reinert: I spent 40 years in Washington D.C. as a labor and employment law attorney, primarily representing airlines. About ten years ago I was visiting Kitt Peak National Observatory (50 miles southwest of Tucson, AZ) and was inspired by seeing a truly dark sky. I got interested in the IDA, which is a “virtual” organization with Board members all over the world, but is physically headquartered in Tucson. I actively counseled them on policy for about eight years, then became a Board member two years ago. My term as President began on January 1 of this year. I’m retired from my career now, and this is my time to “give back.”
NM: What are you hoping to accomplish as President?
TR: Changing the perception of the IDA. We are primarily perceived as being involved with amateur and professional astronomical interests. However, our coalition has broadened. We now have a strong biodiversity interest, because we know that light pollution contributes to loss of species, particularly insects, but also birds and mammals.
There is substantial scientific evidence that light pollution harmfully affects human health, most notably a non-genetic increase in prostate and breast cancers, diabetes, and sleep disorders. In 2016 the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted an official policy statement about night lighting and its negative health effects. It’s important that people understand that dark skies are more than just a nice thing to have; light pollution poses a risk to human and other species health.
NM: How are you going to accomplish your objectives?
TR: We are rolling out our new strategic plan in March and changing our branding to publicize that we are becoming more assertive. As light pollution becomes more of a threat, we want to provide more tools to combat it through legal actions, education and persuasion, and local lobbying efforts.
There are health, economic, and climate consequences to light pollution. We want to gather more data about excess energy consumption. We want to change lighting behavior and policies. For example, from 6 p.m. to midnight, responsible outdoor lighting is acceptable; from midnight to 6 a.m., why are the lights on? We waste a lot of money and resources lighting things that serve no purpose. We’ve gotten obsessed with too much light.
Light trespass is just like noise, smoke, or property trespass. We want to publicize the regulations, and let people know that it’s okay to ask neighbors to be in compliance with lighting codes.
NM: How is Borrego Springs doing with its dark skies?
TR: This is my fourth trip to Borrego Springs over the last ten years. Overall the community is pretty good, but I have seen lighting that makes me wonder. (I later learned that he was referring to the intersection of Palm Canyon Drive and Ocotillo Circle, and that the county had replaced the original bright LED lights with Zone 3-compliant lighting.) There is more sky glow from Palm Springs and Mexicali. But Borrego is still one of the dark sky jewels on the west coast.
NM: What else would you like to say about IDA and your new role?
TR: Light pollution is a big problem, but it’s a solvable problem. We have to increase awareness and require governmental action. Our annual board meeting is March 16 and is accessible to everyone. The link will be available in mid-February by going to our website http://www.darksky.org.
We have a great network of advocates around the world. We just need to build the tools they need to fight to re-capture and preserve dark skies. It’s an important mission. I want to make sure that my grandchildren will have a dark sky to look up at.
I thought back to the night before when I had looked through Dr. Randolph’s telescopes at the Orion Constellation. Through his telescopes I could see the Orion Nebula and the Trapezium cluster of stars born from the gas and dust of the nebula. I could see the Horsehead Nebula, a dark nebula silhouetted against the brighter gas behind it. With my naked eye, I could see that Betelgeuse is red (cooler) and Rigel is blue (hotter). The stargazing that night was like opening a treasure chest and reveling in all its sparkling gems. Once again, I realized how lucky and grateful I am to be living under the dark skies of Borrego Springs.
The IDA is completely supported by private donations. It receives no federal or state funding. If you would like to support the mission of the IDA, donate at http://www.darksky.org. If you would like to keep your support local, visit the Borrego Springs Dark Sky Coalition booth on Friday mornings at the Farmer’s Market to make a donation. The Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association oversees the Borrego Dark Sky Coalition and keeps the account for the Dark Sky Coalition, http://www.abdnha/borregodarksky.