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Nevada Has a Massive New Dark Sky Sanctuary

The night skies at 100,000-acre Massacre Ridge are some of the starriest in the world

(Richie Bedarski/Friends of Nevada Wilderness )
smithsonian.com

The view of the night sky from the Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area is spectacular, but chances are very few people will ever make it to the 100,000-acre plot in Washoe County, Nevada, near the California and Oregon borders, to see it. The area has no hotels, electricity and requires visitors to bring everything they will need with them down long, rugged gravel roads, which boasts rattlesnakes, scorpions and almost no cell service. And that’s just fine. Massacre Rim was recently designated a Dark Sky Sanctuary, and the goal is keep it as dark and undisturbed as possible.

A Dark Sky Sanctuary is a designation given to an area by the International Dark Sky Association, a group that works to preserve views of the night sky and fight light pollution. The group has several designations for Dark Sky Places, including International Dark Sky Parks, which are existing parks that implement outdoor lighting that preserves the night sky. The Grand Canyon, for instance, just got certified as one. Then there’s Dark Sky Reserves, dark parks or plots of land where nearby landowners and cities cooperate to preserve its dark character. But the darkest of dark places are Dark Sky Sanctuaries, remote areas where a lack of development and human presence have preserved the view of the same starry skies that humans hundreds of years ago would have looked at.

Massacre Rim easily meets that criteria. According to the Dark Sky Association, the Rim is 150 miles from Reno, Nevada, and 163 miles from Redding, California, the closest major towns. With just four small ranching communities and a population of 800 in the vicinity, humans have very little impact on the night sky in the area, making for a stunning spectacle.

Despite the fact that Massacre Rim is naturally dark, it did take some effort to earn the title. The designation was spearheaded by the conservation group Friends of Nevada Wilderness, reports Benjamin Spillman at the Reno Gazette. To qualify, last year the group traveled throughout the park via four-wheel drive and on foot, using light measuring instruments and quantifying the night sky using the Bortle Scale, a measure of star visibility and natural light. Those measurements found that the area was close to the top of the chart in star brightness; the starlight was so bright, in fact, it cast shadows.

The scores were high enough to qualify the area for sanctuary status, which was granted in March. “This designation literally puts Washoe County on the Dark Sky map,” Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, tells Spillman.

“While all of the wilderness areas and wilderness study areas in Nevada are special remote places, the Massacre Rim WSA stands out because it is so far from any major populated areas, making light pollution there next to immeasurable,” Netherton says in a press release. “People lucky enough to venture there on a clear moonless night will not only see the enormity of the Milky Way, but will also be awestruck to view our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, with the naked eye.”

The designation comes with no legal obligations for the BLM and no requirements from people living nearby to keep the night sky dim.

Noah Glick of NPR recently visited the new sanctuary. In general, he reports, locals are happy to preserve the skies, one of the things that makes their area special. “It’s something that's always there and we’ve always taken for granted,” Janet Irene, owner of the Country Hearth restaurant in nearby Cedarville, tells him. “It’s so exciting to know that there’s something else up there, other than what we see every day here. And you can actually see some small part of it. It’s an insight into what might be.”

Massacre Rim is just one of ten Dark Sky Sanctuaries in the world. It's the largest of the four designated in the United States, which include New Mexico’s Cosmic Campground, Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah and the Devil’s River State Natural Area-Del Norte Unit in southwest Texas.

Combating light pollution is good for night skies, saves on energy costs and protects bird and bat species that can be disoriented by excess outdoor light. But preserving some slice of the night sky is getting harder and harder. Today, according to Nadia Drake at National Geographic, an estimated 83 percent of people on Earth live with some degree of light pollution, and 99 percent of the United States and Europe are light polluted.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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