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Electronic Billboards Threaten Arizona's Astronomy Industry

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Arizona is in the midst of a struggle between light and dark. The state is home to a flourishing billboard industry which brightens up a vast network of freeways, but it is also a haven for astronomers who embrace the region's wide stretches of dark, desert sky and mountain peaks to gaze at the stars.

The friction between these two industries is intensified as state lawmakers proposed a new bill that would expand the area in Arizona where electronic billboards are plastered along interstates and highways.

Dark-sky advocates, however, argue that the bill would be detrimental to the state's astronomy industry.

Glaring electronic billboards are prohibited in most of Arizona, except in Interstate 8 and 10 in Phoenix and the rest of the city, because of a compromise between advertisers and astronomers in 2012. The compromise was designed to prevent light pollution near observatories.

If lawmakers proceed with the new bill, it would lift the ban in parts of La Paz County and in most of Mohave County.

Timothy La Sota, spokesperson for Lamar Advertising who lobbies for the bill, said it is a matter of fairness for cities, and that if the state wants to generate revenues, cities should have the same ability as others when it comes to the electronic billboards.

"Other cities and towns in Arizona [which] do that are in a similar situation -- they're not anywhere near an observatory," said La Sota.

Lowell Observatory Director Jeffrey Hall acknowledges that the area is far from major observatories, but the new bill backtracks on the 2012 compromise and could have long-term effects.

"The signal [this] sends is that Arizona is willing to — bit by bit — chip away at the dark-sky protection that keeps the astronomy industry viable," said Hall.

Aside from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona contains Kitt Peak National Observatory and Mount Graham National Observatory.

Hall and other astronomers take advantage of Arizona's dark night sky for research, stargazing, GPS monitoring and national defense purposes. He said the astronomy industry was worth $1.3 billion in capital investments in 2008 and spends $250 million yearly.

Under the 2012 compromise, the dark-sky corridor is protected from electronic signs, streetlights and other sources of excessive artificial light, which are often perpetrators of light pollution.

Hall and his colleagues are concerned that light from the billboard signs could affect the sensitive technologies they use to detect celestial bodies.

Still, La Sota said advocates have nothing to worry about.

"People aren't going to put these billboards out on an untraveled country road. It doesn't make any commercial sense," added La Sota.

The House of Representatives has already passed the bill on a 32-26 vote last March 3, and it has now moved to Senate.

Photo: Michael Heiland | Flickr

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