Best of the West: Dark Sky Week celebrated across the region; storms help, don’t solve water needs; pandemic threatens Tribal traditions

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting April 5, 2021. (Photo of the Milky Way over Point Lookout in Mesa Verde National Parj by Jacob W. Frank)

Dark skies, starry eyes, can’t lose. This week (April 5-11) has been designated as International Dark Sky Week, but Utah Gov. Spencer Cox made a point to highlight the impact of light pollution by extending the observance for an additional three weeks.

“Did you know that more than 80% of people in North America can't see the Milky Way at night?” the Governor recently tweeted. “Dark skies are integral to the well-being of many animal and plant species, and they have positive health impacts on humans. That’s why we’ve declared April 2021 as Utah Dark Sky Month.”

While at least 2,500 stars should be visible under normal nighttime conditions, only a few hundred can be seen in a typical American suburb. Luckily for those of us in the West, there are many opportunities to experience the full wonder of the night sky – a list that continues to grow with Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado recently being certified as the 100th International Dark Sky Park.

California’s Death Valley National Park, Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument, Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, New Mexico’s Fort Union National Monument, Montana’s Glacier National Park, and Nevada’s Great Basin National Park are just some of the certified Dark Sky Parks in the West. (Full list of International Dark Sky Parks here.)           

Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Oregon have also passed Dark Sky legislation to promote quality of life, energy conservation, public safety, and astronomical research capabilities by regulating light pollution. A similar bill was unanimously approved by the Nevada Senate in February and is awaiting approval from the Nevada House of Representatives and ultimately Gov. Steve Sisolak’s signature. 

Along with the health and environmental benefits of limiting light pollution, several western states are also looking at stargazers to bolster tourism. A 2020 study by Missouri State University projected that astrotourism could generate over $5.8 billion in economic activity and support 10,000 new jobs over the next decade in the Colorado Plateau alone.

In Utah, there is a growing movement to create a 20,000 square mile Southeastern Utah Night Sky Reserve that would bridge the skies between nine national parks and monuments, 16 towns and cities, eight state parks, and a large portion of the Navajo Nation.

In Colorado, the state’s tourism board launched Colorado Stargazing: Experience the Night, a self-guided tour of seven certified International Dark Skies communities, including Crestone, Creede, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. You can even rent out the Smokey Jack Observatory in Westcliffe for a private star party, or go to Silver Cliff for an Amish wagon ride in Wet Mountain Valley to admire the constellations.

STILL DRY: March storms improved Colorado snowpack, but drought conditions persist in the state. The Director of the Colorado Climate Center told the Colorado Sun “we’ll need multiple years of above-average snowfall to really get us out of this.” The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of Colorado reports the snow-water-equivalent (the amount of liquid water held in snow) is at or above 90% of normal in the Yampa, White, Laramie, North and South Platte river basins, and 110% of normal in the Arkansas and Upper Rio Grande basins. The Upper Colorado Headwaters, Gunnison, San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan basins are all under 90% of normal. To the West, the NRCS National Water and Climate Center reports the Lower Green, Upper Colorado-Dolores, Upper Colorado-Dirty Devil, Lower San Juan, and the Escalante Desert-Sevier Lake basins are all under 70% of normal. Further south, the snow-water-equivalent is below 50% of normal in the Lower Colorado-Lake Mead, Little Colorado, Rio Grande-Elephant Butte, and Upper Pecos basins.

CULTURAL IMPACT: The pandemic has hit Indigenous communities particularly hard, as many first language speakers and the culture bearers who hold the knowledge that marks their tribal nation's identity have died from COVID-19. According to KOSU, that is especially true for the Kiowa Tribe in Southwest Oklahoma, and tribal leaders are concerned about their community’s ability to pass on their traditions to future generation. The longer tribal gatherings are postponed, said Vernon "Cy" Ahtone, the more likely their traditions will be lost. "We don't have a tribal Wikipedia. We talk to one another and are able to transfer our feelings, our thoughts."

HOUSE OF THE FUTURE: A community of homes in Rancho Mirage, California, will be constructed in just a matter of months using 3-D-printed panels. Interest in the homes was equally swift: all 15 units already have been purchased, according to The Los Angeles Times. The 1,450 square foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes will cost $595,000, roughly $30,000 below the median price for a similar-sized home in the area, according to Redfin. The homes will include, among other features, a swimming pool and circadian lighting systems. And if that isn’t futuristic enough for you, the developer accepted cryptocurrency for deposits, and two buyers paid with Bitcoin. 

STATE OF THE STATE: Western Governors have been delivering their annual State of the State address in recent months. Watch all addresses delivered to date and see a ‘word cloud’ of the top issues discussed by Jared Polis of Colorado, Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, Mike Dunleavy of Alaska, Greg Gianforte of Montana, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Brad Little of Idaho, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Laura Kelly of Kansas, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Steve Sisolak of Nevada, Kate Brown of Oregon, Spencer Cox of Utah, David Ige of Hawaii, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Jay Inslee of Washington, Mark Gordon of Wyoming, Gavin Newsome of California, and Lemanu Mauga of American Samoa. Read, watch all addresses.

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