The Austin Chronicle

Opinion: Wildflower Center Fails Its Conservation Mission by Lighting Up Its Landscape

Field of Light exhibit glamorizes outdoor landscape lighting and ignores light pollution’s harmful effects on wildlife, plants, and human health

By Soll Sussman, September 23, 2022, Columns

As a conservation organization, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center could take a leadership role in educating Central Texans about the harm light pollution does to our view of the sky and to wildlife.

Instead, the Wildflower Center has chosen to cover 16 acres of its landscape with more than 28,000 colored bulbs for its Field of Light exhibition this fall.

As a longtime member of the Wildflower Center and a founding member of Hays County Friends of the Night Sky, I am truly disappointed by this decision. While I appreciate art, I fail to see how using 28,000 spheres, no matter how subtly lit, showcases an intersection with nature.

The premise of the exhibit – glamorizing and normalizing outdoor lighting no matter how much they claim to be using the lowest amount of light possible – sets a poor example for Central Texas.

Light pollution harms plants, birds, bees, insects, and other wildlife as well as human health. Not to mention contributing to skyglow that degrades our view of the night sky. There are serious implications for energy conservation, as well as climate change, as a result of over lighting. Natural darkness should be a priority for an environmental center that claims to inspire the conservation of native plants through public gardens, adult and youth education programs, conservation research, and consulting.

I do appreciate its decision to respect the recommendation to turn off the installation at 11pm each night to help protect migratory birds this fall, but the Lights Out Texas program's 11pm cutoff is arbitrary and pragmatic to encourage more businesses to participate. Light pollution's harmful impact on our environment involves much more than fall bird migration. It affects our environment every night, from sunset to sunrise, not just from 11pm to 6am during spring and fall bird migrations.

We have huge challenges facing us to gain widespread understanding of the issues around light pollution in all aspects of our lives. A conservation organization like the Wildflower Center could help in educating the public about light pollution instead of making it look attractive.

New research is showing that artificial light at night affects the seasonal cycles of plants, impacting the growing season and affecting everything from allergies to local economies.

The International Dark-Sky Association found that in the United States, outdoor lighting consumes approximately 380 terawatt-hours per year – enough energy to power 35 million homes for one year. And much of it is wasted, glaring and pointed needlessly upward toward the sky.

Why not work to educate the public about light pollution's impact on biodiversity, energy conservation, and climate change, instead of spreading pretty bulbs on a landscape?

At Hays County Friends of the Night Sky, we work to educate the public – including homeowners, businesses, industrial facilities, school districts, churches, builders, developers, and many more – about responsible use of lighting. These basic principles of outdoor lighting include using lighting only when, where, and at the level of light needed to do the job; selecting warm-colored lights and using shielding and careful downward aim; using energy-saving controls on outdoor lights: timers, dimmers, and motion sensors; and educating about the importance of good lighting for our health, economy, and environment.

This is important as development spreads so rapidly throughout the Hill Country, including Travis County, making the unobstructed view of the night sky increasingly rare. A report found that, for at least 80% of Americans, it is impossible or very difficult to see the Milky Way.

Many Hays County residents are volunteers and members of the Wildflower Center. Certainly, at Hays County Friends of the Night Sky, we would like to see a conservation organization do better.

Soll Sussman is a board member of Hays County Friends of the Night Sky ( He works as a consultant developing cross-border partnerships related to energy and the environment in the United States and Mexico. Previously, he worked at the Texas General Land Office (for 21 years) specializing in sustainable energy. He was an Associated Press journalist, including five years in Mexico City as news editor for Mexico and Central America.

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