Think Out Loud

Protecting Oregon’s dark skies

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
June 3, 2021 4:59 p.m. Updated: June 3, 2021 4:58 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, June 3

Although Oregon’s towns and cities glow brighter with night lights, Prineville Reservoir State Park is the first Oregon park to be certified as an International Dark Sky Park. This means it’s earned a spot alongside less than 200 locations around the world. We hear from Mike Simonsen, a park manager who worked on landing Prineville’s designation. Bob Grossfeld, manager of the Oregon Observatory in Sunriver, joins as well. Sunriver earned an International Dark Sky Place designation last year. They share details about why protecting the night sky is important and how seeing stars helps Oregonians connect with the universe.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Last August, the town of Sun River was named the first International Dark Sky place in Oregon. The designation is given to communities that have successfully prevented light pollution, as a way to maintain a darker night sky. Last month, a second Oregon location was added to that list. Prineville Reservoir State Park is now certified as an International Dark Sky Park. We’re going to hear about both of these locations right now. Mike Simonsen is managing the Prineville Reservoir State Park. He’s also the Park Manager at Fort Stevens State Park, and Bob Grossfeld is the Manager of the Oregon Observatory in Sun River. It’s great to have both of you on the show.

Mike Simonsen and Bob Grossfeld: Thanks for having us. Glad to be here.

Miller: Mike Simonsen first. Before we talk about these dark sky designations, I’m just curious, have you gotten people at the park there in Princeville who have spent their whole lives in urban areas and haven’t seen stars in a very dark sky before, and then they get there?

Mike Simonsen: We have. It kind of hits home with us. We had a seasonal couple, years ago, that grew up in downtown Chicago, and,...

Miller: Somebody who went there, to work, for the summer?

Simonsen: Yeah, exactly. His first day out there, when he stayed the night with us, and then the second day he came back to work and was like oh my gosh, I’ve never seen a sky like that before. He was used to seeing bits of the sky between bigger buildings and then looking up through the light. So yeah, it was eye opening to a lot of us because a lot of us that worked at the park grew up in rural areas or and you know, used to seeing the sky, maybe not as well as you see it in Prattville, but you still saw the sky. So that was new to us.

Miller: What have you noticed in the people who are looking up, what do you, what’s your sense for their experience when they really do see the multitude of stars?

Simonsen: You know, honestly, it’s a sense of awe, you know, it’s weird to describe, but when we get our telescope out and they look up there for the first time and it’s hard to get them away from the telescope. I almost, it’s almost a religious experience for people, I think, to really look up there for the first time and see the stars or the planets or the moon for the, for the very first time. It’s a really moving experience.

Miller: Bob Grossfeld, The sense I’ve gotten is that Sun River as a community, was ahead of the curve in terms of thinking about light pollution, thinking about reducing the lights, that would make it harder to actually do exactly what Mike Sorensen is talking about. Can you describe what is in place in terms of the community, for years now of homeowners and businesses?

Bob Grossfeld: Well, Sun River, in the early development in the 60′s, one of the things they wanted to do was protect nature and they included the night sky in that. So the original development had all the lights covered, everything was designed to not spill light to the sky, in order to protect the night sky. So the observatory really wasn’t the reason for their night sky program, or their ability to get designated as a Dark Sky location. It was actually the homeowners and the town itself, they actually have been doing this for over 50 years. We were able to take advantage of that, being located in Sun River. So the early development of Sun River was designed to protect nature and they considered the night sky as part of nature.

Miller: And you can actually, you can see the results. I mean, if the initial community leaders had had a different sense of what it meant to protect nature, and preserve nature and hadn’t made sure that lights weren’t going up or having them be covered or lower or or off as a default. I mean, could you still have an observatory there?

Grossfeld: Oh, I think so. We’ve actually helped other observatories, there’s one in Bend for example, and there’s a few others in Central Oregon, but we use it as a great teaching tool. You can see the light pollution from Bend from Sun River very easily, as Bend has been growing. So it’s a combination of being able to use our surrounding area, but certainly like Prineville, Central Oregon is pretty dark sky. We don’t have the population base, so it works out pretty well for showing that experience to all the folks that come, not just the people who live here, but obviously Sun River being a destination resort. People come for all sorts of different reasons, but the night sky is one of the reasons. They will continue to come to the observatory. We get people that come back year after year just to enjoy the night sky.

Miller: You’ve been in Sun River for about 30 years now, I understand a time of incredible population growth and building growth in Bend and in central Oregon as a whole. What has that meant for the night sky?

Grossfeld: Well, I think for both Redmond and Bend the night sky has been going away slightly, even though Deschutes County now is looking at stringent lighting ordinances,

they started looking at even at the state level, they’re starting to look at that a little bit differently than they have in the past. So, for Sun River, it really hasn’t changed that much in the 30 years I’ve been here. Certainly the growth in Bend has changed quite a bit and we can see the light pollution growth.

[Cat yeowls]

Miller: Is your cat okay?

Grossfeld: What’s that?

Miller: Is your cat okay? There was a plaintive cry.

Grossfeld: Yeah.

Miller: Okay. I just want to make sure.

Grossfeld: Being noisy. [Cat yeowls]


Miller: Okay. I assume, you’re saying it’s been noticeable, the increase in night glow from Bend, which is just, as a crow flies, what, about 15 miles from you? You’ve noticed it over the last 30 years.

Grossfeld: Yeah, absolutely. And even though there’s a big giant lava flow between Bend and Sun River, the light dome from Bend has grown quite a bit over the years. It hasn’t really impacted our ability to look at the night sky,.but it is something that like I said, is a great teaching tool, especially with folks coming from major metropolitan areas that come visit the observatory, they can actually see the difference between, you know what we have, what Bend has.

Miller: Mike Simonsen, what have you done at Prineville Reservoir State Park to prevent light pollution within that state park?

Simonsen: We started kind of doing what it sounds like Sun River’s done for the past 30 years or 50 years. We shielded our light, We changed our bright lights out to red tinted lights. We’ve done just about everything we can do to shield everything, so we’re not throwing the light up into the sky anymore. We really focused on shielding everything and getting it down to where we really needed it.

Miller: What have you heard from visitors there? I mean if it’s if instead of having you know yellowish lights they have red ones or if in some cases the lights aren’t as bright or are tied to motion sensors. Have there been visitors who said no I I want brighter lights for safety. I want them all the time. I don’t like red lights, I don’t care about the night sky.

Simonsen: No, honestly we’ve had about the opposite reaction. People appreciate not having those bright lights out there. You know when you’re coming into a campground or you’re going out to enjoy nature, the last thing that you’re normally looking for is a bright light shining in your face. So yeah, they’ve really appreciated us dimming down our park. Honestly, it’s been a very good reaction from campers and visitors.

Miller: What has this designation meant for the park? You’re only about a month into it, but there has been a little bit of publicity about it. Have you noticed a change in visitors as a result?

Simonsen: Yeah, we, it was funny, we got designated about three days later for the first time. We had a group of people come out and there were seven scopes in one of our 10 loops. And that was the first time we’ve ever seen scopes in our park. Other than when we were doing our star party or doing something special out at the park. We’ve never really seen visitors just bring scopes out there.

Miller: So people came to camp and then they set up a whole bunch of telescopes pointing up, and you hadn’t seen that before.

Simonsen: Never, never have we seen telescopes show up like that before, So yeah, it’s been really big, right off the bat. We had a bunch of people show up to do stuff like that and I would say it’s been pretty steady. I would, if you come out here, there’s 3-4 telescopes up every night, now since then and we’re hoping that that just continues to grow.

Miller: What’s the social world like there with campers who have set up telescopes? I mean is it kind of a communal atmosphere or people stick to their own telescopes?

Simonsen: Right now they’re kind of sticking to their own telescopes, if we get out there and we have our telescope also, it turns into more of a social atmosphere. Obviously, Covid hasn’t let us do that last year. We haven’t been able to do it this year, but a couple of years ago, it turned into a social thing. People, we would bring, you know, anywhere from 50 to 75 people out to look at the scope and get conversations going. It was a good time.

Miller: As I mentioned, Prineville Reservoir State Park is the first Oregon state park to get this designation. But my understanding is that others could follow. What do you see in terms of the possibilities for marketing here or for trumpeting this designation?

Simonsen: You know, I don’t want to throw too much stuff out there. But as you get more and more parks designated, we’d like to do some type of passport program that you could come out and if you came to the park and you looked at the stars or whatever, you’d get a stamp on that, and what that would entail and where that could go, I have no idea. But you know,

people right now are just throwing ideas around to get people out to our parks and get a different type of user group into our parks.

Miller: Bob Grossfeld, and I should remind folks from talking right now with Bob Grossfeld, who’s a Manager of the Oregon Observatory and Sun River and Mike Simonsen, Park Manager at Fort stevens State Park, but also filling in at Prineville Reservoir State Park. Both of these locations, Sun River and the Private Reservoir State Park have been designated as International Dark Sky locations. They are the only two such locations in Oregon right now, with that designation. Bob Grossfeld, we heard earlier from Mike Simonsen about the kind of religious experience that he has seen people have when they look up at the sky, I’m curious what goes through your mind when you look up?

Grossfeld: I think the nice part of the job that we do is educating people about what the night sky hasn’t been able to protect people from. You know, the idea of light pollution. I think the religious experience that people have when they come out to the conservatory is unique in the sense that most of the folks that come from out of the area, I’ve never seen the Milky Way. Most of us here live in Oregon, have seen the Milky Way, but we take that for granted. So I think a lot of times that’s probably the best part of what we do is that education level and having kids look at Jupiter and Saturn for the first time I think is inspiring. I think that makes it a unique experience for everyone that works out at the observatory.

Miller: What’s at stake in this Dark Sky movement more broadly? I mean we, we happen to be talking to two of you because you have this designation in places that are obviously, much less urban than Bend or the Portland Metro area for that matter. But what’s at stake in dark skies for all of us as human beings,

Grossfeld: It’s that awe and wonder of what’s out there and being able to be a part of nature. I think that connection is very key for people and it just opens up so much inspirational thought process that if you know, it’s like taking away something you don’t know you have, people live in metropolitan areas that don’t know what the sky looks like. They don’t have that as part of their life where you know, we’re trying to get people to come outside at night, where a lot of people say, well it’s getting dark, come on in, we want people to go out at night. I think the state parks and then even the national parks are realizing that astronomy and night viewing is a part of the amenities that they have to offer.

Miller: You want people to say not, it’s dark come on in, but it’s dark, go on out.

Grossfeld: Exactly right.

Miller: Bob Grossfeld and Mike Simonsen, thanks very much for joining us today,

Grossfeld and Simonsen, overlapping: Thanks for having us. Not a problem.

Miller: Bob Grossfeld is the manager of the Oregon Observatory in Sun River, and Mike Simonsen is the manager of the Fort Stevens State Park and he’s also filling in, he used to be the full time Park Manager at Prineville Reservoir State Park and he is still filling in there. Tomorrow on the show we’re going to talk about the summer festival and concert season, which is just around the corner, with life inching back to a new normal, we’re going to hear from two behind the scenes companies about what it’s like to put on outdoor events right now. Our production staff includes Julie Sabatier, Elizabeth Castillo, Connie ??? Cortez and Senior Producer Allison Frost. Nalin Silva engineers the show. Our Technical Director is Steven Cray and our Executive Producer is Sage van Wing. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One app on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at eight p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC Today. I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow.

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