Think Out Loud

Southern Oregon now boasts world’s largest dark sky sanctuary

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
March 13, 2024 4:38 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, March 14

This undated photo shows an image of the Milky Way as seen from the Warner Valley Overlook in Southern Oregon. In March 2024, a 2.5 million-acre swath in Southern Oregon was named the world's largest Dark Sky Sanctuary by DarkSky International.

This undated photo shows an image of the Milky Way as seen from the Warner Valley Overlook in Southern Oregon. In March 2024, a 2.5 million-acre swath in Southern Oregon was named the world's largest Dark Sky Sanctuary by DarkSky International.

Joey Hamilton/TravelOregon


An area that’s nearly half the size of New Jersey in southern Oregon was recently named the world’s largest dark sky sanctuary by DarkSky International. The nonprofit works to combat light pollution through advocacy and conservation, including a program that has certified more than 200 places around the world to protect the night sky.

The Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary spans 2.5 million acres of mostly public land in eastern Lake County, and could eventually grow to more than four times that size to include parts of Harney and Malheur Counties. To win certification as a Dark Sky Sanctuary, the applicants had to work with numerous stakeholders to draw the site’s boundaries, monitor night sky quality, inventory outdoor lights and replace more than 60 lights on public and private lands. Dawn Nilson is a natural resources planner, amateur astronomer and the project manager of the Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary. She joins us to talk about this conservation effort and future expansion plans for the sanctuary.

Note: 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. More than 30 years ago, a group of professional and amateur stargazers came together to prevent light pollution and to restore the nighttime environment. Their group is now called DarkSky International. They’ve certified more than 200 places around the world. On Monday, they announced the largest sanctuary of all and it is right in Oregon. The Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary is almost 40,000 square miles in Eastern Lake County and there are plans to have it more than quadruple in the coming years going into Harney and Malheur Counties. Dawn Nilson is a natural resources planner and amateur astronomer. She was a project manager to get this sanctuary certified and she joins us now. It’s great to have you on Think Out Loud.

Dawn Nilson: Thanks so much.

Miller: Why have you dedicated so much of your time and energy and life to either preserving or re-establishing dark skies?

Nilson: Well, I’ve been in the environmental field for a very long time and so I’m quite acquainted with the challenges that we face globally, and haven’t really seen all that much will in a particular direction. And I think that the challenges are so big that people don’t step up to meet them. So when I first learned about light pollution about 15 years ago and its effect, not only on the skies - which I’ve been a lifelong amateur astronomer - but on the environment, as an ecologist, I just kind of had an attitude of ‘not on my watch.’ And I saw it as really low hanging fruit of something that could be done. And if we could do something about this low hanging fruit, if you could bring people together to do something about something as obnoxious but easy to solve as light pollution, then maybe there would be inspiration to go after the bigger challenges that we face.

Miller: What are some of the big ecological effects of light pollution?

Nilson: Well, the simplest answer is if you just think about the earth itself. I mean, it’s been spinning for 4.5 billion years and as it spins on its axis, we have a day and a night. Every living thing that’s on this earth has evolved with that day and that night. So when we start putting artificial light up into the sky and into these ecosystems, and we’ve done it so quickly…it’s just been over the past 100, 150 years and our 24/7 lifestyle is just getting more and more to the point where most folks don’t even have a sense of what night is. You go out and you see this really gray sky at night, not because there are clouds, because everything’s washed out with all the glow from the lights. So everything that evolved with that day and night is being disrupted at an alarming rate and it’s hard to catch up, to evolve around it.

There’s lots of details, but almost every scientific study that has been done in recent years, as this issue has become more to the forefront, has indicated that from a bean plant to trees, to a snail, to a turtle, to moths, to owls, to human beings, are negatively impacted by artificial light at night.

Miller: All of that is about the real ecological and species-level effects. What about emotionally? I’m curious what your experience of looking up into a truly dark sky is? And it’s funny, I understand why the organization is called the Dark Sky International. But to me, what’s most remarkable about being in a place where there’s very little human light is how bright the actual sky is, how bright the Milky Way is, that it feels like it’s our galaxy, but it seems like we’re looking at a cloud. It’s an astounding fact, but I’m curious, your experience is of looking up at that sky, what does it feel like for you?

Nilson: Well, I first had experience growing up in inner city Philadelphia. I first had the experience of seeing a night sky in the Pinelands of New Jersey. And they’re still some of the darkest places on the eastern coast, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

Miller: You can get lost there, famously.

Nilson: Yeah. And that first time seeing the sky was also the Apollo mission and watching the rockets go to the moon. So from that day forward, I just always looked up and I couldn’t see things from the city. And then when I came out west, I saw more stars in California, living in San Jose, all the lights, the street lights were yellow because it was a gentleman’s agreement to keep the skies in a better condition because Mount Hamilton Observatory was nearby.

Then I came to Oregon. And coming to Oregon and seeing the skies that we have here is just something that a lot of people can’t get [their] head around. The best explanation is to say, if you’re looking through a telescope, a telescope allows you to look deeper into space, right? Because it collects light, it allows you to look deeper and deeper into space. But if you’re in a light polluted area, when you look through the telescope, you’re still going to see this kind of like a pixelated gray in the background from the sky glow. And so you’re not going to get quite the contrast of stars against that sky.

When you’re in a place like the Oregon Outback, you’re in a sky that’s so dark, that’s so pristine, that it has no to minimal light pollution. That when you look through a telescope, that background is black, it’s an inky velvet black. So everything pops out. And the real important part of the story is that you don’t need a telescope when you’re in a place that’s that dark, because so much pops out that you can see things like the Andromeda Galaxy 2.5 million light years away. And you can see open clusters and nebulae, star-making factories, with your naked eye.

Miller: When did you start to focus on South or Southeastern Oregon, this immense patch of land that has now been given this sanctuary status?

Nilson: Well, I had been 10 years into volunteer dark sky advocacy and I got to the point where I felt like I was banging my head against the wall trying to work through the regulatory angle, trying to get the general plan, Portland’s general plan. And trying to get codes developed. I was seeing that these dark sky places that were popping up around the world were really having an effect in terms of creating outreach. I’m a strategic planner. And so I approached it very strategically and thought about what places could be nominated for a certification in Oregon, that would really make a difference. And not just Oregon, but would make a difference throughout the Pacific Northwest, where we didn’t have any dark sky places and where we’re losing the night at a rate of 10% a year, globally. That’s pretty significant.

The Outback, having been to the Outback a few times and really considering it a happy place, a really special place, it’s just such a vast area. And I just saw it as an area where a really large place could be developed. The larger the place, the notion was the larger the benefit, the impact of gaining that benefit from protection and the benefit of that story going out. Like we’re here today, that outreach going out to the rest of the people in the Pacific Northwest.

Miller: My understanding is one of the strategic things you did early on was, once you found out that there were three different, in a sense, competing groups that were all near each other, but saying, why don’t you consider us as a sanctuary, you had the idea of, let’s combine these and we’ll go all in together. What did you actually have to give to the DarkSky folks? I mean, what did they require of over the years before they would accept this nomination?

Nilson: Well, yeah, there hasn’t been a sanctuary at that scale. But a small handful have zero lights on them. They’re wilderness areas. They’re one landowner. So coming to the staff at DarkSky and saying we want to develop one real large sanctuary that includes private land, that includes multiple landowners.

Miller: BLM, state land.

Nilson: Five state agencies, three Bureau of Land Management Districts, two National Wildlife Refuges, three counties, two ODOT districts.

Miller: An alphabet soup of challenges.

Nilson: Yes. I kind of like to use the adage, I was born when Kennedy was president. And so I’ve been very inspired by Kennedy’s vision with Apollo and Camelot and so forth. And I just remember we chose to go to the moon and to do, in this decade, other things, not because it’s easy but because it’s hard. I knew it was going to be hard, but I believed in the benefits of the outcome for not just the stars, not just for wildlife, but for the people of the Outback to be recognized, who get often lost in the shuffle of Willamette Valley-focused Oregon.

Miller: So am I right that you actually had to, to the best of your ability, account for the light sources in this immense land?

Nilson: Yeah. Every light.

Miller: Literally every light.

Nilson: Every light for a century.

Miller: How did you do that?


Nilson: Well, I’ll candidly say that there were probably maybe four ranch lights that were missed. But I told folks in the beginning that none of us were going to risk getting shot stepping onto private property. And it’s hard to find addresses and so forth to ask people if you can come onto their property. There was one federal agency that shall not be named that pretty much said no. We weren’t even invited to come on to do surveys. And so they’re not in the sanctuary.

Miller: Oh, so that land, there was a carve out, and industrious listeners can pretty much figure that out.

Nilson: Yeah, some of it had to be carved out.

Miller: But what about the places, say, an ODOT maintenance building that, I don’t know if there’s like a snow plow that has to clear hundreds of miles of roads, there may be a shed for that snowplow?

Nilson: Yeah, there are maintenance sheds out there. In each county, there are several maintenance sheds.

Miller: And they have floodlights so folks can pull their snowplows in or take their rigs out?

Nilson: Right.

Miller: What did you do?

Nilson: Well, that was a long conversation with ODOT. Unlike the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the wildlife refuges that were engaged, and the counties who had interest from a tourism standpoint and to maintain their legacy of a starry night sky, ODOT’s mission does not include wildlife and habitat. It’s transportation…

Miller: And safety and…

Nilson: And safety.

Miller: And often well lit areas, we see that as equaling safety or being a component of safety.

Nilson: So that’s part of the story. Yeah, because it’s a tale I have to tell all the time. You have to be a mythbuster in doing this work and one of the big myths is brighter is better And you know that you need a lot of light to do things.

Miller: You’re saying that some amount of light is enough for safety but at a certain point, brighter is not safe.

Nilson: Yeah. And in fact, at a certain point, it’s unsafe. I mean, we’re using light in a way now that it’s literally unsafe.

Miller: So we could spend a long time talking about lighting protocols in cities or in rural areas, but broadly, what were you doing when you would identify lights in a certain place? Did these places, all these different agencies, have to make changes in order to have the dark sky folks certify this area?

Nilson: So once you account for all the lightings - and unlike some other dark sky places for a sanctuary, you have to count for all of them, public and private. You have to put together a lighting management plan that addresses how you’re going to move forward with existing lights and how you’re going to move forward when you’re going to be maybe considering a light someplace. And one of the challenges that we had was, because there were multiple owners, one of the criteria for dark sky was, well, if you’re gonna do this, it’s a precedent setting project, but we don’t want to skew it too far away from what most people think of as a sanctuary. And so you need to have one single lighting management plan. So we had to get all those parties to agree on one single plan. And then once they agree to it, you have to look at the lights that you have and you compare that to what’s been identified as the plan, of what you’re going to subscribe to and you have to go in at 67% of your lights need to be consistent with that plan.

Miller: Things like not pointing up, not being the wrong color, temperature.

Nilson: Right. So being fully shielded, not having more light than is necessary. Some lights were decommissioned altogether because they weren’t proved to be useful. And that’s really the first criteria - is it useful? Do you really need that? I’m happy to say the stewardship in the Outback has been so fabulous or we wouldn’t even be having a Dark Sky place there. I didn’t see any lights for the most part that weren’t useful.

Miller: What do you hope is going to follow from this? I mean, now that this sanctuary has been established and the hope is that it will be quadrupled in size. It’s already the largest in the world, but it’ll be four times larger. What do you want people to do?

Nilson: To pay attention to their habits, to really think about it. Just like we have to, in order to protect the environment, we have to think about what we eat, what we purchase, what we do, where we’re driving, how we’re combining our trips. To think about lighting, do you need to leave that porch light on all night? Does it need to be unshielded? Just to think about what we’re doing and to think about everything that we do has an effect on other beings and other people. And the fact that lights from Boise and the Treasure Valley area of Oregon as well and lights from the Bend area are encroaching into that starry refuge is upsetting. And it’s not going to be encroaching to a level where they won’t be the darkest among the darks, but they’ll be less than they are if it continues.

Miller: To a measurable extent.

Nilson: Right. And so by making something so big, I’ve heard someone call it a vanity project, and there was nothing about vanity in it. It’s that bigger gets more attention, bigger creates a more sense of pride and bigger creates action. And the hope was to make it so big that the folks around it would have to pay attention to what they’re doing, so they don’t ruin something next door.

Miller: Do you have any concern that bigger also will attract more people to a place that is very dark and very undeveloped right now? And a place that is also a very sensitive habitat, very arid, where people leave human waste or whatever, it’s not going to decompose anytime soon. It’s not like a rain forest.

Nilson: Oh, yeah. Emphatically, yes, there’s concerns and being bigger was one of the ways to address those concerns.

Miller: Because the visitors will be more spread out, you mean?

Nilson: Exactly. So, if you just focus on a wilderness area and that’s what some have been, a wilderness area, then people who wanna check off the box that they’ve been there,

even if everything around them has the same characteristics, they’ll wanna check the box that they’ve been to that spot. So rather than direct people to the spots where there were no lights whatsoever and just pick one place, like pick one of the wildlife refuges, it was to create this huge place so that people would be using it as they do now, so that all the recreational traffic would be completely dispersed. And people would be guided. And then with tourism at the table - which has been essential. It will not be an effective project without tourism at the table because tourism will help people go to the right places so that there aren’t those incidents. And give people the tools and the brochures that talk about, “pack before you go,” “pack in, pack out” and etcetera.

Miller: Just briefly, we’ve got 30 seconds left. But what do you think kids growing up, say, right now in bright urban areas, who might never see the kind of sky you’re talking about - what do you think they’re missing?

Nilson: They’re missing a connection that’s been part of humanity since humanity came to the earth. And that’s a connection with, as above, so below. It’s a connection to something beyond ourselves. It’s a connection that creates enormous inspiration and it is just really part of our humanity.

Miller: Dawn Nilson, thanks very much.

Nilson: Thank you.

Miller: Dawn Nilson was the project manager of the group that got the Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary to be agreed upon. She is an amateur astronomer, among other jobs.

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