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Light Wars

by Dave DeLeon

Mention the need to protect Maui's environment, and one evokes familiar images of pristine oceans and rain forests, rare species and open spaces threatened by the press of human activity. Lately another environmental problem has come into, well, the limelight. The issue is light itself, and what it's doing to our night skies.

Until recently, the debate mostly pitted those who are concerned about safety against those who value being able to see the stars at night. But as the population of the island continues to grow apace, and new neighborhoods pop up where there were once empty fields, the island's night sky is becoming increasingly well lit. So well lit, say the astronomers who operate the massive telescopes on Haleakal»a, that eventually those telescopes could be rendered useless for nighttime observations. And that could just about kill a significant industry that Maui leaders were counting on to help balance the island's economic giant, tourism.

Increasing urbanization is also bringing more lights down to the island's beaches to provide safe passage for visitors. The problem is that many of Maui's resort beaches are also the nesting grounds of the endangered hawksbill sea turtles.

Five known (tagged) hawksbill females nest on Maui's south shores from Kealia to M»akena. Each female nests anywhere from one to six times a year, producing an average of 175 eggs-from which perhaps one or two hatchlings will make it to maturity.

"If the beach is too well lit or too active at night, the turtles won't nest there," said Maui Ocean Center's Hannah Bernard.

"And if they do, and their eggs successfully hatch, lights on the beach can be disastrous. When they open their little eyes for the first time, the baby turtles are programmed to look for the lighter colored sea. If there is a light on the beach, they will be drawn to it. These little guys' chances of success are pretty small to start with. If they charge off in the wrong direction, mesmerized by an inland light, they can be doomed."

So the astronomers, environmentalists, and dark-sky proponents teamed up and brought their concerns to Maui County with the hopes of addressing their issues in a comprehensive county Outdoor Lighting Ordinance. Their goal was to follow the direction taken by the Big Island over a decade ago: use low-pressure, sodium-vapor (LPS) lights for outdoor lighting throughout the county. LPS technology works because the fixtures emit a narrow light spectrum that can be filtered out by the astronomers on Haleakal»a.

The environmentalists would like the lights to come off the beaches altogether, but failing that, the LPS lights would be a reasonable compromise, they say, because these lights would be less attractive to turtle hatchlings.

But the Maui Hotel Association and the Maui Police Department do not agree. Law enforcement officers object that LPS lighting distorts colors and would make their job of protecting the public more difficult. At a recent meeting on the topic, Assistant Police Chief Robert Tam Ho promised that his department would fight any proposed county ordinance that includes LPS lamps.

This debate has been playing itself out in the county council's Public Works Committee-more precisely, in a subcommittee that was appointed to write a proposed Outdoor Lighting Ordinance. Actually, the county code already has an outdoor-lighting provision that requires the county to retrofit its street lights with shields that focus light on the ground and keep it from spilling into the sky. That ordinance requires a countywide retrofit to be done in five years. In the three years since the ordinance was adopted, no retrofit program has been initiated, or even funded, according to testimony given to the subcommittee by Public Works officials in July.

Both the Maui Chamber of Commerce and the Maui Hotel Association point out that it is premature to pass another law requiring a countywide retrofit to low-pressure sodium-vapor lights (which costs about $1,000 a fixture) before the shielding is completed. They want to see the results of that effort before more money is spent.

Here's how LPS opponent and Moloka'i resident Paul Mullin described the LPS light quality: "All color other than yellow is rendered as shades of gray. We experienced this in the late 1970s when we lived in Long Beach, California. [LPS lighting] creates an oppressive mood and makes you want not to be outdoors at night. It's a much worse blight than the light pollution it seeks to remedy."

It is that effect on color that so concerns the police. When asked if the department could live with some sort of compromise, such as a mixed use of LPS and regular white light that would allow for normal coloration, Assistant Police Chief Tam Ho blasted the committee members. "From day one, we told you no," Ho said. "This is a bad thing. We will testify wherever we can to put this thing down. "

The police testimony moved Subcommittee Chairman Molina to recommend that the proposed ordinance be redrafted to take LPS technology out of the equation altogether. But the committee did not support that action.

The Institute for Astronomy's Maberry acknowledged having a change of heart, going from proposing a total LPS package to a mixed system, using some LPS where possible. But LPS has to be part of the equation if nighttime astronomy on Haleakal»a is going to remain viable, he said.

"The county can shield and otherwise redirect its outdoor lighting downward, but as the island develops, its light-even if directed downward-will eventually overwhelm the telescopes. The lights from Kahului and K»ihei are too intense, too close, and too much line-of-sight to not have an impact, he said.

"If the county wants to maintain astronomy on Haleakal»a, then it will either have to introduce some degree LPS lighting in new developments or it will have to curtail any new lights altogether." Maberry said the night sky over Haleakal»a is already 50 percent brighter than natural.

"The Maui police," an obviously frustrated Maberry added, "want a spotlight every 10 feet."

The Maui Ocean Center's Hannah Bernard shared his feeling, saying that she has dropped hopes of opening new hawksbill nesting sites. Now she is focusing on protecting those that remain. If there has to be lighting on beaches, LPS lighting has less impact on the turtles, she said, adding that, in her mind, it boils down to a question of how we live in balance with our environment.