Sarah Burak: We are losing the grandeur of the night sky

Zach Schierl | National Park Service Up to 5,000 stars visible from Utah's Cedar Breaks National Monument, as seen in this night-time photo shot from Point Supreme Overlook last summer. The monument on Saturday celebrates its recent designation as a Dark Sky Park.

As an amateur astronomer and Dark Sky Ranger, I am always excited to share our spectacular night sky. People travel from all over the world to witness the iconic landscapes of Southeast Utah, during both day and night. Watching the excitement as people experience darkness and the Milky Way for the first time is an amazing thing. Looking into the outer arm of our galaxy is impressive and awe inspiring. It’s an experience and resource worth protecting for ourselves and future generations.

Hovenweep National Monument is honored as a Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park — designated for its exceptional quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment. As an International Dark Sky Park, Hovenweep protects more than just ancestral structures. It protects an ancestral landscape written in the stars.

Unlike canyons or rivers that have continued to erode and change, the night sky remains much as it was thousands of years ago. Stargazing gives us the rare opportunity to experience a connection with those that came before us.

Unfortunately, modern humans are rapidly losing the ability to see the grandeur of the night sky. Studies estimate that only 20 percent of Americans can see the Milky Way from their homes. One-third of the world’s population has experienced a similar fate. This is a devastating loss to our shared heritage. Without minimizing light pollution, more and more people will be without access to this astonishing resource.

Places like Hovenweep that have taken steps to reduce and maintain low light levels should be commended for preserving dark skies. Allowing industrial-scale development around the park puts these efforts in jeopardy. Lights from oil derricks and flames from off-gassing brighten the sky and can be seen for miles.

Keeping our skies dark has to be a group effort. Designating 784 acres dark sky, but leasing the surrounding 94,000 acres to energy development won’t allow for darkness.

That’s why I’m alarmed that the Bureau of Land Management is currently attempting to lease another 30,000 acres of public lands near Hovenweep National Monument to oil and gas companies. In the draft analysis required for the upcoming September lease sale, the BLM elects to not analyze the impacts oil and gas development on night skies. This comes even though the leases under consideration are just four miles away from the pristine night skies of Hovenweep.

To complicate matters, the shortened 30-day window for public comment makes it challenging to have enough time to even grasp the extent of the impacts that development would have on the night sky.

Light pollution is one of the few types of pollution we can reverse. Unlike trying to skim oil out of rivers or filter particles out of the air, all we need to do is turn off the lights or take some areas with so precious a resource off the table for widespread industrial development. We can also research the lighting impacts of future developments and provide standards for lighting on and around public lands.

These are our public lands and by mandate must serve multiple purposes, but we cannot continue to overlook the importance of dark skies to people in our country and around the world.

Now’s the time to urge Gov. Gary Herbert and our members of Congress to protect the dark sky resources at Hovenweep National Monument. Ask them for permanent protections around the park to ensure visitors from around the world can continue to enjoy the dark night skies as much as I have.

Sarah Burak is a former Dark Sky Ranger for the National Park Service. She currently teachers third graders reading, writing, arithmetic, and the wonders of the universe.