Dark Skies Initiative

Project Summary and Mission:

Light pollution is increasing in the heart of the Davis Mountains of West Texas. Located atop Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes and under some of the darkest night skies in the continental United States, sits the 500-acre world-renowned University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory. The Observatory’s mission is to inform, educate, and inspire through their public programs, and support the teaching of the science and hobby of astronomy. The second largest employer in Jeff Davis County, the Observatory hosts approximately 100,000 visitors each year. Through a campaign of education and awareness, the Observatory’s Dark Skies Initiative seeks to protect the beautiful, milky-way filled night skies of West Texas for ongoing astronomical research and education. To protect the dark skies surrounding the Observatory, the seven counties (Jeff Davis, Brewster, Presidio, Hudspeth, Culberson, Reeves, and Pecos) surrounding the campus have outdoor lighting ordinances and all the cities within these counties have similar municipal ordinances. This represents 28,000 square miles of land with outdoor lighting ordinances, for the protection of dark skies. In recent years, the increase of oil and gas activity in the Permian Basin has resulted in an increase of light pollution that threatens the dark skies. To measure the increase in light pollution surrounding the Observatory, all-sky photometry data is collected to determine the rate at which the night skies are brightening.

Before and after the oil and gas boom in the Permian Basin. Sky-glow from oil and gas related activities expands across the Pecos River and towards McDonald Observatory.
Source: The New World Atlas of Artificial Sky Brightness.

Project Impact:

The Observatory has partnered with the Permian Basin Petroleum Association (PBPA), Texas Oil & Gas Association (TxOGA), American Petroleum Institute (API), and University Lands to publish a “Recommended Lighting Practices” guide and has also partnered with Apache Corporation to produce a complementary video (check it out below!), that oil and gas companies in the Permian Basin can utilize that benefit both the oil and gas industry and the Observatory. Dark skies friendly lighting has been found to not only reduce light pollution but also to efficiently and effectively increase visibility and worker safety on oil and gas operations by reducing glare. Additionally, dark skies friendly lighting consumes less electricity by redirecting previously wasted up-light to the ground, allowing for the use of lower wattage bulbs—saving an average of 80% in power consumption!

Apache Corporation tank battery using the latest dark sky friendly LED lighting technology. Note the light sources themselves are shielded from view, reducing glare, while providing a well lit working area. No light shines directly into the sky.
Photo: Bill Wren/McDonald Observatory

The Observatory is the second largest employer in Jeff Davis County. The county’s economy is largely based on tourism, with the Observatory welcoming approximately 100,000 visitors per year. Through the Dark Skies Initiative, The Observatory is able to preserve astronomical research efficacy, minimizing disruption for wildlife in surrounding areas, and educate tens of thousands of visitors each year on the importance of dark skies. Many of the same people who visit the Observatory also visit Davis Mountains State Park, Fort Davis National Historical Site, Balmorhea State Park, Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, Fort Leaton National Historic Site, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, local hotels, restaurants, and other businesses–thereby contributing to the local economy.

The growing number of partners includes:

Permian Basin Petroleum Association, Texas Oil & Gas Association, Anadarko, Apache Corporation, Apollo Energy Services, Cactus Drilling, Capstar Drilling, Chevron, Cimarex Energy Co., Helmerich, Payne, Inc., Light Tower Rentals, Mark West Energy Partners, L.P., Nabors Industries, LTD., Patterson-UTI Drilling Co., Pioneer Energy Services, Precision Drilling, and Sidewinder Drilling, LLC.

Many of these partners have implemented the “Recommended Lighting Practices” on some of their sites, check out more information on Pioneer’s Rig #29 Report and Apache’s 2017 Sustainability Report where they highlight their efforts with The Observatory on pages 5, 50, 101, and 103-104.

A cost savings example:

Dark sky friendly lighting consumes less electricity by redirecting previously wasted up-light to the ground, allowing for the use of lower wattage bulbs. In 2012 the Big Bend National Park was designated an International Dark Sky Park after replacing its patchwork quilt of legacy lighting with a new dark sky friendly LED system. The park superintendent reported energy consumption at their Panther Junction headquarters fell by 90%.

Before and after modernizing to dark skies friendly LED lighting in the Chisos Basin at Big Bend National Park. Photo provided by National Park Service.

Additionally, Big Bend Ranch State Park was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in November 2017. Together, the two parks form one of the largest contiguous areas under dark-skies protection in the United States.

Texan by Nature’s vision:

Texan by Nature is working to connect every oil and gas operator in the Permian, and in the state, to the Observatory in order to spread education and awareness of the positive benefits of the Dark Skies Initiative and encourage oil and gas operators to adopt the “Recommended Lighting Practices” because good conservation is good business. 

Project needs:

  • Partners: Connections to oil and gas operators and businesses in the Permian and across the state who would like to learn more about the Dark Skies Initiative and adopt the “Recommended Lighting Practices”. 
  • Funding: The Dark Skies Initiative is seeking funding to continue their campaign of education and awareness across the state and to fund the purchase of dark skies friendly lighting fixtures.

Implementing dark skies friendly lighting on your operations? Texan by Nature wants to celebrate and acknowledge your efforts to protect dark skies through our Texan by Nature Certification Program, apply today so we can tell your story! Download the TxN Project Certification for Dark Skies Friendly Lighting in the Resources section below for more information.

Contact Taylor Keys at taylor@texanbynature.org or at 512-284-7482 if you would like to learn more, would like to get involved, or have resources for the project.


Title Link
Dark Skies Initiative Project Overview 2018 CW Download
TxN Project Certification for Dark Skies Friendly Lighting Download
Recommended Lighting Practices Guide Download

Tangible Results



  • Approximately 54,000 people reside in the seven-county region surrounding the Observatory.
  • The Observatory welcomes approximately 100,000 visitors each year for daily guided tours, star parties three nights per week, State and National Park Ranger workshops, accredited STEMS based science teacher workshops, and a distance learning program.
  • There are thousands of oil and gas sites in the Permian Basin.


Coming Soon!

  • Texan by Nature will be working with The Observatory to quantify the economic impact of tourism.
  • The Observatory welcomes approximately 100,000 plus visitors each year generating a revenue of $1M+. Many of these people visit nearby national and state parks and visit local cities, contributing money to the economy via eco-tourism.
  • As a rule, dark sky friendly lighting consumes less electricity by redirecting previously wasted up-light to the ground, allowing for the use of lower wattage bulbs. In recent years, the Observatory has helped dozens of homes and businesses in the seven-county region, dozens of drilling rigs and other fixed oilfield installations operating in the Permian Basin, and beyond, modernize to dark sky friendly LED light fixtures saving an average of 80% in power consumption.

Natural Resources

Coming Soon!

  • Texan by Nature will be working with The Observatory to quantify the direct and indirect natural resources impacts.
  • The seven counties with outdoor lighting ordinances surrounding the Observatory comprises over 28,000 square miles (18,000,000 acres).  However, outdoor lighting beyond this region has an impact on West Texas’ skies.
  • Every living organism on the planet evolved under a diurnal cycle of day and night; light and dark. Exposure to too much artificial light at night disrupts the feeding, mating, and sleeping habits of all.  Reducing exposure to artificial light at night is beneficial to all.


Related Articles

Texan By Nature Blog September 5, 2018

Dark Skies, Bright Futures in the Permian Basin

International Dark-Sky Association August 14, 2018

Texas Collaboration Protects Dark Skies

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