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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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Iran Comes Out of the Shadows Bari Weiss

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Iranians celebrate Iran’s attack against Israel in downtown Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Over the past 24 hours, the war that has raged in the Middle East since October 7 took on a new dimension.

In a historic first, Iran directly attacked Israel from its own territory—launching more than 300 drones and missiles toward Israel.

As Free Press columnist Matti Friedman writes today from Jerusalem: “Like a flash going off in a dark room, the attack has finally given the world something valuable: a glimpse of the real war in the Middle East.”

Tehran’s strike on Israel—who thankfully had defensive help from the U.S., Britain, France, Jordan, and reportedly Saudi Arabia—should make clear, for those still in doubt, that this war is not about Gaza, or even about Israel and a single Iranian proxy in Hamas. It is about Iran.

“The importance of last night’s barrage was that for the first time, the full Iranian alliance gave us a practical demonstration of its scope, orchestration, and intentions,” Matti writes. “If you’d been watching from space, you probably could have seen the lines of this new Middle East etched in orange and red across the map of the region.”

READ MATTI FRIEDMAN HERE.

Some Americans understand that clearly—and aren’t condemning it, but cheering it on. Our Olivia Reingold found herself at a conference of anti-war activists in Chicago on Saturday. Activists were taught how to chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in Farsi. Watch:

And, when news of the attack broke, the crowd cheered and burst into chants of “Hands off Iran.” 

READ OLIVIA’S DISPATCH HERE.

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April 13, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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Michael Oren: How Did the War Begin? With Iran’s Appeasers in Washington Michael Oren

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Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As Iranian provocations have mounted, the Biden administration has refrained from holding Tehran accountable. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Historians writing years from now about the Middle East conflagration of 2024 will undoubtedly ask, “When did it all begin?” Some will point to the Bush administration which, demoralized by its inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, rejected Israel’s entreaties to take out Iran’s then-inchoate nuclear program in 2008.

Others might cite Israel’s willingness to play by the mullahs’ rules, retaliating against their Hezbollah and Hamas proxies rather than against Iran itself, enabling it to emerge from each round of fighting utterly unscathed. 

But the bulk of the blame, fair historians will likely agree, will have to fall on the policies of those in Washington who sought to appease Iran at almost any price and ignore its serial aggressions.

Those policies began in the week after President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. In one of the forty-fourth president’s first acts of foreign diplomacy, Obama sent an offer of reconciliation to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That June, in his historic Cairo speech, Obama became the first president to refer to Tehran’s regime as the Islamic Republic of Iran—legitimizing the oppressive theocracy—and stood aside while that republic’s thugs beat and shot hundreds of Iranian citizens protesting for their freedom.

Over the next four years, the White House ignored a relentless spate of Iranian aggressions—attacks against U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf; backing for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups dedicated to America’s destruction; and barely disguised efforts to undermine pro-Western Middle Eastern governments.

At the same time, Iran supported Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s mass slaughter—often with poison gas—of his own countrymen. Obama had declared Syria’s use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” on America’s involvement in the war. It didn’t.

In Washington, the administration overlooked an Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi and Israeli ambassadors (including me) and ended a federal investigation of a billion-dollar Hezbollah drug and arms trafficking ring in the United States. Most egregiously, Iran constructed secret underground nuclear facilities and developed an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system that threatened the entire Middle East and much of Europe.

Why would any White House, even one devoted to rebuilding America’s relationship with the Islamic world, seek rapprochement with such a regime? 

At the time, there were multiple reasons. First, there was the desire of the United States, tired of Middle Eastern wars and no longer dependent on Arab oil, to withdraw from the region and focus on the Far East. Next, there was the belief that the U.S. had traditionally relied on its Sunni and Israeli allies only to discover that Sunnis perpetrated 9/11 and Israelis defied American policy in the West Bank. The Iranians, stronger, modern, and open to the West—so many American policymakers concluded—offered a better alternative if only their leadership were assuaged. Lastly, and ultimately most decisively, was the Iranian nuclear program, a burgeoning strategic threat that the White House refused to interdict by military means.

The nuclear agreement reached in 2015 between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany, and Iran—euphemistically called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—had three major objectives: to block Iran’s path to the bomb, ensure that Iran became what Obama called “a responsible regional power,” and, failing that, to kick the “nuclear can” down the road. The first two goals proved illusory. 

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adjusts his eyeglasses after casting his ballots during the parliamentary and key clerical body elections at a polling station in Tehran on March 1, 2024. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Rather than block Iran’s path to the bomb, the agreement solidly paved it by allowing Iran to retain most of its nuclear infrastructure and to continue producing ever more advanced centrifuges capable of reducing Iran’s breakout time to mere weeks. The deal put no meaningful restrictions on Iran’s missile delivery systems or its clandestine weapons programs. And even then, the largely cosmetic limitations were set to expire in less than a decade. Well before that time, though, Iran harnessed the deal’s financial and strategic rewards to expand its sphere of influence across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. So much for the responsible regional power.

In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, reinstated punishing sanctions on Iran, and retaliated for Iranian attacks against Americans, indicating a different approach to the issue, but that policy proved short-lived. A centerpiece of Joe Biden’s 2019 presidential campaign was his pledge to restore America’s adherence to the JCPOA. No sooner had the Democrats regained the White House than the Iranians began to violate the agreement on a massive scale, gradually achieving military nuclear threshold capacity.

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Obama’s singular foreign policy achievement.

As the Iranian centrifuges spun, the Biden administration entered into intense negotiations to renew the JCPOA. The talks were headed by Robert Malley, who was evicted from the Obama campaign in 2008 for meeting with Hamas. Under Biden, Malley became America’s special envoy to Iran, but he was recently ousted for mishandling sensitive information. Though the initiative to reinstate the deal eventually failed, the U.S. still provided Iran with at least $10 billion in funds that had been frozen, and reportedly much more than that in quiet sanction relief. 

Meanwhile, the Iranian provocations mounted. An ally of Russia, Iran provided thousands of offensive drones and long-range missiles used to kill America’s allies in Ukraine. Since the start of the war against Hamas, Iranian proxies have launched more than 170 attacks against U.S. military bases in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, and all but blocked international shipping through the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait. 

Still, the U.S. refrained from retaliating against Iran directly, or even holding it publicly responsible. When, in January, three American soldiers were killed by a drone strike by an Iranian-backed militia, the U.S. struck back at the militia and not at the country—or even the factory—that produced the bomb. 

Then, on Sunday, a historic first: Tehran directly attacked Israel from its territory with hundreds of drones and missiles.

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran to repeatedly assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one. 

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. Press reports about President Biden’s refusal to support an Israeli counterattack against Iran indicate, sadly, that nothing substantial in the U.S. position has changed. He has reportedly urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to see the coordinated response to the attack as a “win.”

The Iranians, though, will not see things that way. Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity. If Israel follows Biden’s advice it will send one message to the ayatollahs: “You can launch another 350 missiles and drones at Israel or try to kill Israelis by other means. Either way, the United States won’t stop you.” 

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

The story of America can end only one of two ways: either it stands up boldly against Iran and joins Israel in deterring it, or Iran emerges from this conflict once again unpunished, undiminished, and ready to inflict yet more devastating damage.

Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset member, and deputy minister for diplomacy in the Israeli prime minister’s office, is the author of the Substack publication Clarity.

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