When is the last time you’ve had a clear view of the Milky Way? Chances are you’re among the 99 percent of Americans who can’t see all that much of the night sky from where you live.
As part of our series touring some of our favourite public lands, Amanda Peacher takes us to the first U.S. International Dark Sky Reserve in Central Idaho.
On a cold spring evening in May, the sun has dropped behind the peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains but it’s taking a while for the sky to fade to black behind Redfish Lake in Central Idaho.
Astronomer Matt Benjamin is here to give a talk about the newly protected night sky. A small crowd gathers on the beach. This remote valley is on the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness and the closest city lights are more than an hour away.
“We’re far from urban areas,” says Benjamin. “As a result, this is just about as pristine of a dark sky as we get. There are few places in the world that are this dark, aside from maybe Antarctica or the middle of an island in the Atlantic/Pacific Ocean.”
Most Americans have limited views of the night sky because of light pollution from buildings, street lamps or traffic. And Benjamin says that means they’re losing something important.
“We are ‘star stuff’ — the atoms and elements in our bodies came from the stars that died long ago," Benjamins says. "And being able to see that ancestry in the sky is something that brings really clear humility and identifies our significance in the universe.”
The new dark sky reserve covers 1,400 square miles in what Benjamin says is a special place to view the stars.
“You’ve got these gripping mountains and lakes and forests that then touch the heavens and the cosmos," he says. "There’s a little more drama with the sky here than perhaps being out in the flats of eastern Colorado or Kansas.”
A few twinkling diamonds appear in the darkening horizon and Benjamin begins with night sky basics.
“Looking straight up, this right here is the Big Dipper."
Benjamin uses a laser pointer to highlight and tell stories about constellations and the sky. A few people exclaim with wonder as they peer into a spotting scope for a close up of Jupiter’s moons -- the moons look like pinpricks of yellow light against the black backdrop.
More and more stars and planets and satellites emerge as the night darkens. The sky is now a half dome of twinkling light and constellations butting up against the jagged silhouette of the Sawtooth mountain.
Central Idaho now has the only designated international dark sky reserve in the United States, and just one of 12 in the world. The designation has sparked ideas about night tourism and astronomy talks and presentations for the area.
Sara Peyton is visiting from Boise, Idaho. She’s scanning the sky with an app on her smartphone to identify the constellation Scorpius. She says the night sky gives her a sense of humility.
“It’s tragic to think that some generations wouldn’t see it,” says Peyton. “Or people live in cities where they would never see this. It really does give you context for life, your life is so small, but then it makes your life feel a little more important.”
Local communities have promised that new construction or buildings won’t include lighting that pollutes this unique view and, at least in this small part of the world, that whole night sky above will be protected.
Ireland Clark also came from Boise to camp at Redfish Lake for the weekend. She’s glad to hear about the reserve.
“I think that’s awesome. It should be protected," Clark says. "We should definitely have more people out here observing the stars. There’s actually a whole universe above us that’s hard to see in the city, you know?”
Find reporter Amanda Peacher on Twitter @amandapeacher.
Copyright 2018 Boise State Public Radio
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.