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Seeing Stars

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This week, the National Park Service and the International Dark-Sky Association are celebrating dark skies.

And on Thursday, April 24, Chaco Culture National Historical Park celebrates its new designation as one of only four national parks recognized as an International Dark Sky Park.  Chaco is one of the amazing places still left in the West where the night sky  lights up with stars.  The new designation also recognizes the park's efforts to reduce light pollution and its public outreach programs at the national park and its observatory.

NPS-by-K-Alden-Peterson

Unfortunately, it's something of a sad commentary when we have to celebrate the rare place where you can see the night sky like everyone used to be able to see it.  Chaco's night sky is essentially the same night sky that ancient Puebloan people saw when they lived there over 1,000 years ago.

I can remember when I was a kid, about fourth grade, attending a summer camp out of Salt Lake City, up somewhere in the Wasatch Mountains.  I still remember looking up at the night sky from my sleeping bag and seeing a sky that blazed with stars.  It seemed so bright to me that starlight could cast your shadow on the ground.  Now, even in the darkest night skies the stars are bright  but don't seem to quite match that memory. That's probably at least partly due to the excess imagination of youth, but I do think we've lost some of that beauty even within my life span.

Chaco presents an opportunity to see the same quality of night sky that everyone enjoyed until sometime in the early-to-middle 1800's.  That's when the industrial revolution began, of course, and over the next century and a half the emissions from factories and the growing numbers of street and building lights would slowly dim the heavens.  Before industrialization, world-class astronomy could be carried out from the comfort of observatories in Paris and London.  The French astronomer, Messier, discovered over 100 deep sky objects from his perch in Paris in the late 1700's. Even in Washington D.C. in the 1870's Ulysses S. Grant and his son would spend hours on top of the white house exploring the night sky with a small telescope.   It's as if humans began to suffer from a cosmic glaucoma.  The places from which we could see a blazing night sky were slowly being limited to smaller and smaller regions.

And now the boom in the oil and gas industry is threatening some of those last reserves of an ancient night sky.  With the price of natural gas in the tank, oil companies are literally burning away a fuel, natural gas, that is scarce and coveted in other parts of the world (say Ukraine).

Natural gas flaring can be viewed from space. Image by NASA.
The flaring or burning of natural gas is causing significant impacts to the night sky.  In fact, oil fields near Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota can be viewed from space. The park has faced significant decline in the quality of its night skies due to the flaring of natural gas on oil fields located on the private lands that surround the park.

Chaco Canyon faces a similar threat. Last fall, the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had considered oil and gas development less than a mile from the boundary of the national park.  If oil fields go in and stacks flaring natural gas go up, it would harm the beauty of the night sky and mean an end to enjoying that beauty as Chaco's original inhabitants did and modern visitors can now.  Thankfully, New Mexico BLM recognized the threat to the park and deferred leasing.

There is some hope for Chaco Canyon and its night skies.  The BLM is engaged in two separate efforts that could address oil and gas development and the burning of natural gas at oil well sites. First, the New Mexico BLM Farmington Field Office is revising its oil and gas plan covering 1.3 million acres of public lands, including lands near Chaco Canyon.   New Mexico BLM is accepting public comments on the plan until May 28th.  Second, the BLM is drafting new rules to address the venting and flaring of natural gas and will be holding a public forum on the issue in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on May 7th.

This willingness to step back and consider the idea of taking a more balanced and thoughtful approach to oil and gas leasing on public lands promises to bring  more common sense  to development on public lands.  These efforts fall in line with the Secretary of Interior's recent directive that we develop our important energy resources on public lands and still protect other values, such as our dark night skies.

So, let's turn out the lights and let the star party begin.  And let's not even start burning off natural gas around places like Chaco.  Not only will it protect our night skies, but we'll have added benefits of cleaner air and cuts to global warming pollution.

There should be some places left where we can almost see the same night sky as those ancient Chacoans ... or those ancient Londoners and Parisians.

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