Letter to the Editor: First Latino Conservation Week in St. George illuminates the importance of dark night skies

Stock image, St. George News

OPINION — As the director of Southern Utah National Conservation Lands Friends, I was thrilled to organize the first celebration of Latino Conservation Week in St. George this July.

Latino Conservation Week celebrated the important role nature plays in Latino culture. Members of our larger community were also invited to celebrate their unique connection to nature and the work of friends and neighbors engaged in conservation and advocacy to protect our local environment. We’re grateful for the good turnout and support.

Outdoor adventures, service and conservation events were hosted in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, part of a 34 million-acre system of National Conservation Lands designated by Congress and the president. These are some of America’s most spectacular and culturally significant landscapes and include wild and scenic rivers, national monuments, scenic and historic trails, wilderness study areas and national conservation areas.

Celebrations wrapped up on July 20 on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. Conserve Southwest Utah and Southern Utah National Conservation Lands Friends partnered with the Bureau of Land Management to host a Fiesta de Las Estrellas, or Star Party, at the edge of the Red Mountain Wilderness inside the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

We’re so grateful to the St. George Astronomy Group for setting up five telescopes and an astrophotography camera that allowed viewers to study pictures of stellar nurseries and craters on the surface of the moon. More than 30 people gathered to enjoy the dark night skies and discuss the value of conserving this endangered resource for future generations of stargazers and astronauts.

Would Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin have become astronauts if they hadn’t been able to learn about celestial objects and phenomena by observing the dark night sky? Would they have wanted to travel in space if they hadn’t first been inspired by the stars glittering above them?

Joseph Acaba, Frank Calderio, Jose Hernandez, Ellen Ochoa and Serena Aunon (some of the many Latino American astronauts who have traveled in space) all needed the opportunity to observe stars and planets with the naked eye. Explorers, artists and scientists agree that night skies are a canvas for wonder and have inspired some of humanity’s greatest achievements.

Ichtaca Arrizon brought his daughter to the Fiesta de Las Estrellas to learn about the universe and her ancestors. He told her that they relied on the skies for inspiration, romance, to escape, to learn and for survival.

“For years, your ancestors used the night skies to tell stories of morality, to know our place in the universe, and for travel. We have to keep the skies dark so we ourselves aren’t left in the dark.”

Gazing at lunar craters on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing when Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon, date and location not specified. | Photo courtesy of Conserve Southwest Utah, St. George News

Some families at the star party could relate to the experience of living under a sky with 12 stars, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson describes from his youth in the Bronx where the night sky was little more than a few stars.

“You’re so lucky to be able to see this every night!” a mother told her daughter while pointing at the Milky Way. She talked about the 1994 Northridge Earthquake in Los Angeles that caused a city-wide power outage.

Multiple emergency calls were made that night by residents who stepped outside and were startled by the “giant silvery cloud” they saw over the city. Kids at the star party laughed when they heard this. After spending an evening learning how to spot constellations embedded in the Milky Way, it seemed impossible not to recognize that silvery cloud. They pointed to Cygnus the swan flying down the river of stars, the Tea Pot releasing its stellar “steam” and Scorpius with its stinger stuck in the Milky Way.

The BLM recognizes that starry night skies and natural darkness are important parts of national conservation lands and that many NCAs are some of the last remaining harbors of darkness. Sky glow from St. George was visible on the horizon during the Fiesta de Las Estrellas, but we could still see the Milky Way. The outer arm of our galaxy floated luminously above the cliffs and ramparts of the Red Mountain Wilderness, illustrating the relationship between protecting the land below and the skies above.

Conserve Southwest Utah and SUNCLF work with our community to help the BLM steward the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area and the nine resource values it was designated to protect for present and future generations. Some of these resources are solid and sturdy, like the desert tortoise. But others – like solitude, natural quiet, and natural skies – are more subtle.

These “natural values” can be experienced inside the NCA in the Cottonwood Canyon and Red Mountain Wilderness areas, less than a 15-minute drive from downtown St. George. These places to escape the hustle and bustle support our physical, mental and emotional health and will become increasingly valuable as our community continues to grow.

Doctors are now prescribing 20-minute “nature pills” to help patients manage conditions like chronic stress, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression. Maybe 20-minute “stargazing pills” will be next.

St. George residents pose with tea candle lights inside the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area during the Fiesta de Las Estrellas, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Conserve Southwest Utah, St. George News

A serene, timeless feeling can be experienced under velvety black skies where stars shine bright and clear as crystals. While tracing the path of the Milky Way, you’re seeing the same stars your ancestors did, and you might be thinking similar thoughts to the ones they were thinking – thoughts about your purpose and place in the universe. Stargazing thoughts. Night skies provide a connection to the past and help to keep the past alive.

The World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness shows that more than 80% of the world and more than 99% of U.S. and European populations live under light-polluted skies. Unshielded outdoor lighting from residential, commercial and industrial sources, transportation networks, advertising and billboards hides the Milky Way from more than one-third of humanity, including 80% of North Americans.

We cannot take the endangered resource of dark night skies for granted. The abundance of stars still visible near St. George, one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the nation, is worth celebrating and preserving. As urbanization increases, it’s critical to maintain protections for existing open spaces that function as sanctuaries for people, threatened and endangered wildlife, and even stars.

In our corner of the galaxy, we can advocate for continued protection of places like Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, which is currently under threat. The Utah Department of Transportation has applied to the BLM to build a four-lane highway through the heart of the NCA. Transportation networks are a major source of light emissions. Routing a highway through this highly scenic area increases the chance that development could follow.

Later this year, the BLM will accept public comments on the Northern Corridor Highway project. Residents are encouraged to write to the BLM about how this highway would impact them and their experience of the NCA during the day (and during the night!).  Please visit conserveswu.org to learn more about the Northern Corridor Highway, the Red Cliffs NCA, and how you can protect this special place for future generations.

Submitted by SARAH THOMAS, Conserve Southwest Utah

Letters to the Editor are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.

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