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Tribal Village and Casino Impact

The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi have proposed building a tribal village and casino in South Bend, IN, for which the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is soliciting public input on the potential environmental impact. I write to claim light pollution is a likely outcome of the development which needs to be addressed and credibly mitigated. Local ordinances fall short in protecting the nighttime environment, creating the need for an explicit commitment from the developers and the BIA to reduce vastly the project's impact on the night sky.

Areas of Concern

As of this writing, the BIA has already conducted its requisite environmental scoping report, in which it determines which environmental issues are to be in the final environmental impact statement (EIS). The scoping package states, "Areas of environmental concern so far identified that the EIS will address include...biological resources...cultural and historic resources...and visual resources and aesthetics."

The nighttime sky is integral to each of those environmental categories and warrants the attention of the BIA.

As reported in the South Bend Tribune article South Bend council backs Pokagon casino project, "a Council member who introduced the resolution pulled a compact fluorescent light bulb from his suit jacket to illustrate the point that South Bend should 'leave the light on' for the tribe." Therein is the issue--not the welcome, but leaving the light on.

In a handout describing the public meeting of April 14, 2015, the BIA stated "the tribal village concept would revive aspects of traditional Pokagon social, political, and economic structure and organization..." However, another nearby casino managed by the the Pokagon Band gives an example of how excessive outdoor lighting is practiced, ostensibly as part of the business plan to attract visitors. The exterior landscaping and architecture at Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, MI, is dominated by uplighting, and the crowning insult to the night sky is the illumination of the nearby water tower with casino logo. I believe the collective light pollution makes the development the most readily apparent source of light pollution along the eastern shoreline of southern Lake Michigan. The column of wasted light rising skyward past the water tower and impinging on the region's darkness is most evident when viewed from many miles offshore. Are these the traditional aspects they aim to revive?

Why Should We Care?

I write not to weigh the moral merits of a casino in South Bend. Rather, I write to insist that any subsequent development recognizes and preserves the aforementioned "biological resources...cultural and historic resources...and visual resources and aesthetics."

A sky with light pollution negatively affects multiple biological resources. For example, the value for migratory birds is declared in a memorandum of understanding between the National Park Service (NPS) and the US Department of Interior-Fish and Wildlife Service (the latter a cooperating agency in this EIS): "The NPS Night Sky Program collects baseline data on artificial light to assess the impact to both aesthetic and ecological park resources. Light pollution and glare have been associated with altering nesting preferences, disorientation, and collisions in migratory birds." Birds are just the tip of the natural kingdom's iceberg when it comes to environmental impact of outdoor lights.

Light pollution significantly affects human biology as well. In designing any subsequent tribal village and casino, intelligent architects would consider multiple aspects of outdoor lighting, including shielding all fixtures, eliminating uplighting, minimizing blue-rich light (i.e., use lights with CCT lower than 3000K), and lessening light output at off-peak hours.

The night sky is a cultural and historic resource. Half of our lifetimes--half of our heritage--has occurred between sunset and sunrise. Diverse cultures throughout history have had the common denominator of the night sky. Recognizable patterns in the firmament have given rise to entire mythologies and world views. As human development whitewashes the sky with errant and excessive light, that collective resource is lost like chalk that is erased on a blackboard.

And how about the majesty of a starry night when considering visual resources and aesthitics? You can ask an adult about the most mind-blowing starry night they've seen, and he or she will often cite some vacation experience when the sky was amazingly bespeckled with stars. Most kids today, however, cannot relate to that happy circumstance. A muted sky doesn't command attention, and if we allow developments not to consider their impact on the nighttime canvas, we have no reason to expect future generations to conceive of something like Van Gogh's Starry Night.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Forward! Lead by example. If the tribal village and casino are approved, I hope the Pokagon Band and the BIA explicitly recognize the value of the night sky, both in words and in actions. Show others how one can have development while respecting the night. Recognize the science related to light pollution issues, and make your response to the scientific evidence something worth touting. You won't find the answers in some LEED certification specifications, for the benchmark for dark sky awareness requires a mindset more than a set of rules.

Extant building codes don't always require compliance with best practices for earth. In South Bend the tribal development may not need an illuminated water tower, but there will be plenty of opportunities for lighting engineers to go astray. I encourage the BIA and the Pokagon Band to solicit input from people more informed than I when it comes to best practices, for there is peril in some of the promises you will hear from purveyors of lighting fixtures and sysems.

I welcome the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi community in Indiana. If I were in their situation, I'd want my facility to be a model of smart design that reflects my values for earth's resources. I'd want to feature half of creation--the overhead, sunset-to-sunrise part. I'd want my investment to be an education opportunity incarnate for my kids. Personally, I want a success story to broadcast--"Attention, world, here's how it's done right!"

On a Pokagon Band webpage I read, "Sky clans like bird clan and thunder clan were the intellectuals and spiritual teachers; their ability to oversee a long term project step by step aided community planning...The Pokagon Band today is trying to reclaim the clan system, and revive the knowledge of clans in a contemporary way." I don't presume to know the Pokagon culture, but I hope this translates into a modern application of responsibility by a clan toward the night sky.

Such a responsibility applies to all human development, not just the village and casino proposed by this tribe. However, considering the scale of the potential development, and that this project with its casino component is subject to more public scrutiny, I'm weighing in on this environmental impact statement. Please, recognize and mitigate light pollution. Exceed expectations.

Thank you for your consideration.

Chuck Bueter


Author Background

Chuck Bueter is a dark-sky advocate in northern Indiana who authors the website. For the 2015 South Bend sesquicentennial he is coordinating First Midnight activities and leading the SB150 Young Astronomers program. During the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, he was an active member of the Dark Skies Awareness Working Group, during which he spearheaded the Let There Be Night program to raise community awareness of lighting issues. As an amateur astronomer and member of the planetarium community, Bueter believes dedicated observers of the night are well positioned to advance significantly better lighting practices. Bueter is the director of the week-long AstroCamp for youths at YMCA Camp Eberhart, is the president of Michiana Astronomical Society Inc, was the coordinator of the 2013 Comet Festival, and was an instrumental figure in promoting global education and public outreach for the 2004 and 2012 transits of Venus. He launched his astronomy avocation with the Paper Plate Education website in the early 1990s. In his free time he enjoys sailing on Lake Michigan, especially at night.

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