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Welcome to Dark Sky Country Julia Duin

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Prineville Reservoir State Park in Oregon on July 16, 2023. (All photos by Grant Tandy for The Free Press)

The baby blue evening sky was still bright with translucent white clouds when people began showing up to see the stars. 

We were on the shore of the Prineville Reservoir in central Oregon, a lovely spot at 3,257 feet surrounded by sagebrush and juniper hills that form a perfect bowl to block out the light from nearby Bend (population 107,305).

“We don’t see these stars in Oregon City,” said Megan Ruljancic, a tall woman in a white sleeveless top who’d driven in from her home in the Portland suburb about 182 miles away.

She was typical of the campers—most of them in flip-flops and shorts—who had sauntered from their campsites in the state park by the reservoir, intrigued by signs posted by rangers advertising an astronomy presentation. It happened to be a weekend when there was a new moon, and the skies were at their darkest.

Two of the rangers, Alexis Ober and Catie Bopp, had set up a table near the waterfront with information on the need for dark skies and the dangers of “sky glow”—the brightness of the night sky caused by artificial light—which pollutes the heavens for 80 percent of the world’s population. Because of sky glow, one-third of the planet cannot see the Milky Way.

Our view of the skies was a given for generations until cities and suburbs started filling up with everything from LED stadium lights to brightly lit skyscrapers. Today, artificial light doesn’t just cast a shadow over the cosmos; it also throws off entire ecosystems, hindering everything from baby sea turtles trying to find the ocean to birds navigating by moonlight.

Proponents of “dark skies” want to give us the ability to gaze up at constellations, stars, and planets with the same vivid clarity that our ancestors once enjoyed.

Tourists gather at Prineville Reservoir Park on the night of a new moon to catch glimpses of the heavens that can’t be seen from most other places in the world.

Since 2001, the Tucson-based DarkSky organization, also known as DarkSky International, has led a movement to create places all over the planet where there’s little to no light pollution. In 2021, the Prineville Reservoir State Park became Oregon’s first state park to get a coveted International Dark Sky Park designation. 

“There is the recognition of darkness as a valuable resource,” Ruskin Hartley, CEO of DarkSky, told me last month. “The world is getting brighter. Light pollution is growing by 10 percent a year. The brightening of the night sky is one of the most profound changes to the environment we’ve seen.”

Left unsaid in my discussions with him—and others—is the hard-to-express sentiment that a certain quality of life is at stake when one is unable to see a sky brimming with stars. From the Psalms to the Magi to Shakespearean sonnets, human experience has been intertwined with the firmament for thousands of years. The DarkSky website points out that Vincent van Gogh’s famous The Starry Night was painted in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, in 1889; but today, the Milky Way can no longer be seen from that location (perhaps due to light pollution from nearby Avignon). 

Perhaps it was that primal desire to see the natural night sky that drew onlookers to the observatory. Ranger Alexis Ober used a laser to point out the Big and Little Dippers along with the W-shaped Cassiopeia.

In 2021, the Prineville Reservoir State Park became Oregon’s first state park to get a coveted International Dark Sky Park designation. 

Ariel Cody, an 8-year-old from McMinnville, Oregon, was transfixed. “I want to work for NASA and convince an astronaut to explore Saturn,” she said. “I love the stars.”

Meanwhile, Ober was polling the crowd. “Is this the most stars you’ve ever seen?” she asked them.

Most of the people gathered grunted an assent, although there was some conversation about a faint glow to the north.

“The light pollution is from Facebook and Apple,” Ober suggested archly. Facebook has $2 billion worth of data centers in Prineville, a city 16 miles north of us. Apple has a similar footprint.

An Oregon DarkSky spokesperson later told me the most conspicuous sky glow in the area emanates from a regional tire store, not from Big Tech. But the rapid growth of technology companies is exactly why central Oregon has its limits as a world-class stargazing destination. For that, a determined group of Oregon tourism officials, amateur astronomers, and community leaders has picked a different site in the state’s remote southeastern corner.

Set 4,000–6,000 feet above sea level, this arid yet beautiful area about 135 miles south of Prineville is known as the “Oregon Outback” because of its desolate sagebrush steppe and extreme temperatures. The hope is that it’ll become a tourist destination not just for its renowned bicycling routes and bird-watching—the massive Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is smack in the middle of the proposed sanctuary—but also for those wishing to see the skies in their primal beauty. 

Plans are afoot to link three entire Oregon counties—Lake, Harney, and Malheur—and create the world’s largest Dark Sky Sanctuary in an area southeast of Prineville.

The plans are to link three entire counties—Lake, Harney, and Malheur—to create the world’s largest Dark Sky Park. If DarkSky certifies this region, it would be the size of Denmark—or two New Jerseys—dwarfing all other dark sky sanctuaries around the world.

“These are real commitments,” Hartley said. “You have to have several different public agencies adopt quality lighting policies. It takes years to bring everyone on board.”

As of this past January, there were more than 200 certified Dark Sky Places (ranging from parks to remote sanctuaries) in the world. Currently, the world’s largest such area is the Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve, which, at 15,000 square miles (9.6 million acres), encompasses parts of Texas and northern Mexico. This year, Hartley tells me, mainland China, Argentina, and Kenya all established their first Dark Sky communities. 

The Oregonians are primed to beat those numbers, but first they must get government agencies, seventeen municipalities, and multiple landowners to sign on to a 160-page application and commit to a range of measures, like bringing all outdoor lights into compliance within 10 years. 

It took more than two years for the 1,416-square-mile Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve to be approved in 2017, so it stands to reason that a territory twelve times as large will take a lot longer. 

“We are in complex negotiations to make this happen,” Bob Hackett, the executive director of Travel Southern Oregon, told me. “What we are doing is preserving the best dark skies that are left in the lower 48.”

Convincing locals to buy in to the plan is a job that falls to people like Kris Norris, who lives in the tiny Oregon town of Paisley in central Lake County, on the western edge of the proposed sanctuary. Norris oversees Playa, a retreat center for artists and scientists on the shores of Summer Lake, a 20-mile-long body of water just north of town.

On October 14, a solar eclipse will pass over the western half of the proposed sanctuary in Oregon, bringing eager Dark Sky viewers to the state.

Norris, who has long silver hair and black glasses, told me she’s been slowly building trust over the years. She obtained a grant for an astrophotography telescope for local high schoolers to use, and hosts “star parties” where people can gaze through telescopes with guidance from local experts.

“People are proud of what their skies are like here,” Norris said of her fellow residents. “They can’t imagine that the rest of the country doesn’t have that.”

On October 14, a solar eclipse will pass over the western half of the proposed sanctuary. Norris plans to have a star party at Playa that night to get her neighbors thinking of the immense resource sitting over their heads. 

“If you move slowly, the people absorb it,” she said. “It’s taken twelve years for the community to really embrace us.”

Just before meeting Norris, I drove into Bend to visit Worthy Brewing, a combo brewery and observatory—possibly the only one in the world—located in a three-story, silo-shaped building with a retractable roof and a 16-inch reflecting Ritchey–Chrêtien telescope

On a busy summer night, two hundred people will peer through its eyepiece. 

Grant Tandy, the observatory’s director, believes it’s more important than ever to fight for dark skies. 

“Understanding the night sky and having an appreciation for it was life and death for our ancestors,” he told me. “Understanding when to plant crops, knowing the seasons.

 “These days, we barely know of anything beyond the parking lot.”

This is Julia Duin’s first piece for The Free Press. She is Newsweek’s former religion writer, and you can follow her on Twitter @juliaduin.

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Disenchanted with Democrats: The Black Voters Going for Trump Bari Weiss

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For the past few decades, it’s been conventional wisdom in D.C. that “demographics are destiny.” That the increased share of immigrants, young people, and racial minorities across the country would build a bulletproof coalition for the Democratic Party, swelling their ranks and keeping them in power forever.

Those who deviated from this expectation could expect to be called sellouts, race traitors, and Uncle Toms. Recall Joe Biden’s infamous interview with radio host Charlamagne tha God, when he said: “If you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t black.”

But in the past year, Donald Trump has been winning over more minority voters than any Republican in decades. Recent polls have consistently shown that Trump has reached a shocking 20 percent support among black voters. That’s compared to the 8 percent he got in 2016. And Biden’s polling with black voters has dropped dramatically.

This is a monumental, and to many, unexpected turn. And it was noticeable at the RNC. When Michael Moynihan went to the 2016 Republican Convention in Cleveland, the audience was more monochromatic. While certainly not as racially diverse as the Democratic coalition, the convention in Milwaukee felt younger and less white.

Monday night, Amber Rose opened the proceedings. Tuesday night, Madeline Brame, the mother of a murdered veteran, gave a thunderous speech explaining why she’s supporting Trump. She said: “Our eyes have been opened, just like so many other poor minorities across America. Donald Trump shares our values, love of God and family and country. He’s been a victim of the same corrupt system that I have been and my family has been.”

What’s behind this shift? Why do Biden and the Democratic Party seem to be losing their edge with black voters? And could this end up making a real difference for the 2024 election?

Last night, Michael Moynihan went to an event at the RNC put on by the Black Conservative Federation to ask them why they think that MAGA conservatism is appealing to black voters.

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Abigail Shrier: California’s New Law Lets Schools Keep Secrets from Parents Abigail Shrier

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Protests at a Chino Valley Board of Education meeting on gender policy on July 20, 2023, in Chino, California. (Photo by David McNew via Getty Images)

Child predators follow a common playbook: target the victim, gain their trust, fill a need, and, crucially, isolate the child from her parents. For several years, this has also been standard California state protocol with regard to schoolchildren questioning their gender identities. On Monday, this scheme became law.

The “SAFETY Act,” AB 1955, signed by California Democratic governor Gavin Newsom, legally forbids schools from adopting any policy that would force them to disclose “any information related to a pupil’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression to any other person without the pupil’s consent.” Schools may not, as a matter of policy, inform parents of a child’s new gender identity unless the child volunteers her approval. The law also prohibits schools from punishing any school employee found to have “supported a pupil” hurtling down a path toward risky and irreversible hormones and surgeries.

The law effectively shuts down the local parents’ rights movement in California by eliminating its most important tool: the ability to organize at the community level to stop schools from deceiving them. No longer can families hope to convince their school boards to require schools to notify parents that their daughter, Sophie, has been going by “Sebastian” in class; that her teacher, school counselor, and principal have all been celebrating Sebastian’s transgender identity; that they’ve been letting her use the boys’ bathroom and reifying the sense that she is “really a boy.” 

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the law supports the priming of minor children for a secret life with a new gender identity. This includes having school-aged children participate in sexualized discussions and make identity declarations with school faculty, which are often actively hidden from the child’s parents. Elon Musk called the law “the final straw” for families and announced his intention to move both SpaceX and X, two of California’s most prominent tech companies, out of the state as a result. “The goal [of] this diabolical law,” he tweeted, “is to break the parent-child relationship and put the state in charge of your children.”

While researching my book, Irreversible Damage, and in the four years since its publication, I have talked to hundreds of parents whose daughters suddenly identified as transgender. Many of their daughters were encouraged in this revelation by school counselors and teachers in school districts across America. One parent told me a California school counselor had given her son the address of an LGBTQ youth shelter and suggested he emancipate himself from parents who were loving but skeptical of his sudden transgender identity. Another recent California law, AB 665, would have made reclaiming that young man from the youth center all but impossible because he was over the age of twelve.

In California, instruction in sexual orientation and gender identity has been mandatory for all public school students K–12 since the passage of the Healthy Youth Act in 2016. Because such instruction typically occurs within the required “anti-bullying curriculum” rather than the sex education curriculum, parents cannot elect that their children opt out of what is, in practice, a full-bore indoctrination into gender ideology. 

When a child then predictably decides in class that she too may be nonbinary or transgender, this revelation will often trigger schools’ gender support plan, effectively a school-wide conspiracy to promote the child’s new name and gender identity without tipping off Mom and Dad. Official documents and emails and report cards are sent to parents to preserve the child’s birth name and pronouns, concealing the social transition from parents. 

I have talked to parents who discovered their middle-school daughters had spent the better part of an entire academic year known to the entire school as “Spencer” or “Ethan.” One of these girls had even roomed with the boys on an overnight school trip.

I have investigated many cases in which social transitions were concealed from families. In no case did the girl flourish with this new identity. Maintaining a new, secret identity more often became a weight and burden to the girls. Inexplicably to the parents, their daughters became morose, dropped activities they once loved, wore baggier clothing, and begged to cut their hair shorter. The parents became desperate and unsure of what to do. The hidden transition resulted in children’s alienation from loving parents trying to protect them. 

But in the years since I first reported on this practice, political opposition has grown. Parents whose daughters were socially transitioned behind their backs have filed lawsuits against the school districts in California and Florida and Michigan. California public school teachers have sued school districts to block policies that could result in their firing if they inform parents that their children’s names and identities have been changed behind their backs. And a recent statewide initiative in California to require parental notification before a school changes a child’s gender identity as well as ban puberty blockers and gender surgeries for minors garnered over 400,000 signatures, falling just short of making it onto the ballot. 

The SAFETY Act would significantly stymie, if not eliminate, this local pushback to the increasingly unpopular practice of schools playing adoptive parents with other people’s children. (Although already, the Chino Valley Unified School District has filed suit against Newsom over this act.) The plain text of the California law claims that it merely prevents schools from adopting policies that “forcibly out” trans kids—as if confused fifth-grade girls are in the same position as closeted gay adults in decades past who risked arrest and firing for being outed. 

The law’s clever sponsors are typically quiet on the subject of “outing” to whom. The entire school already knows that Lily is now “Tyler.” Teachers will cheerfully share that information with each other, school mental health staff, administrators, and other students. The only ones who don’t get to know are the parents.

A favorite talking point of activists on the left is that with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity, schools must keep secrets with young children to protect them from transphobic and homophobic parents. Even in the most progressive of states, the claim that parents who discover that their child is transgender might abuse or kick her out is used to justify a policy that would otherwise be difficult to understand and impossible to justify.

Aurora Regino is a single mother in California who last year sued the Chico Unified School District for secretly pushing social transition on her then–11-year-old daughter. Regino told me that the “phobia” rationale seemed “ridiculous.” She added, “How is it not outing a kid if you’re telling an entire school that they’re a different sex? That’s outing right there. So everybody knows except the parents? That doesn’t really make any sense to me.”

Erin Friday, a California attorney and author of bills in several states requiring parental notification for any change in a child’s gender identity at school, vented exasperation at the idea that California parents are so homophobic or transphobic they cannot be trusted. “This is California, for crying out loud.”

Regino agreed. “Both my girls are very active. We do swimming, theater, soccer, softball. We are in connection with I don’t know how many families. And there’s not one family that I can think of that we are around that would kick out their kid because they thought that they were ‘nonbinary’ or trans or gay,” she said. “I mean, to me, that’s an extreme statement that these kids are going to get kicked out. Are we saying one in ten thousand? So we’re going to risk the rest of the children and separate them from their parents during the time that they need them the most?” Her now–13-year-old daughter no longer wants to be a boy.

One might think Newsom would realize that a policy this unpopular for Democrats could easily become a political albatross in an election year. Perhaps realizing this, the governor—who is frequently mentioned as a possible 2024 presidential candidate if Biden drops out—when defending the bill resorts to dissembling. On Wednesday, the governor’s press office declared on X that the bill “protects the child-parent relationship by PREVENTING politicians & school staff from inappropriately intervening in family matters & attempting to control if, when & how families have deeply personal conversations.” The bill only “protects” the parent-child relationship if you assume that relationship depends on the parents’ being entirely ignorant of their child’s growing attachment to this new, secret identity.

Governor Newsom also declared: “Under California law, minors CANNOT legally change their name or gender WITHOUT parental consent.” That’s placing a lot of weight on the word legally. The obscurantist governor is correct only in the most technical sense: yes, a child’s legal name can be changed only on official records with parental approval. But in the world of the SAFETY Act, the parents may be the only ones in a child’s life who use that name. 

In the past few years, moderates across the American political spectrum have awakened to the pernicious effects of gender ideology on children. England, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have, in recent years, warned the public of the risks of pediatric gender medicine, banned the use of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones in children, or restricted their use to research settings. The Cass Review, published this year by one of England’s premier physicians, noted the serious risks and specious benefits of pediatric gender transition. My own investigation, published four years earlier, reached the same conclusions. The Cass Review also acknowledged that social transition is an active intervention that puts many children on an inexorable path to medical transition. 

Recent polling shows that voters across the political spectrum believe that schools should be required to inform parents if their children are using different gender pronouns at school than they are at home.

But California Democrats appear ready to drag their party down with them. Parents’ best hope may be federal legislation mandating parental notification before a school can reassign a child’s name and gender. Candidates for president and vice president ought to be asked whether they would support such a bill.

Until her daughter was socially transitioned behind her back, Regino had been a lifelong progressive Democrat. “Now, I’m a registered Republican,” she said.

Abigail Shrier is the New York Times bestselling author of Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up

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July 17, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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