New Mexico “Star Party” a reminder that wildlands protect dark skies, too

Arizona's Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument is one of very few certified International Dark Sky Parks in America.

Credit: Bob Wick (BLM), flickr.

A “Star Party” in New Mexico shows how wildlands help us connect with the cosmos.

Last month, I attended the Enchanted Skies Star Party, in Magdalena, New Mexico; my first ever party of its kind. I had a bit of an idea what to expect—as a community organizer for The Wilderness Society in New Mexico, I’ve gotten to know some of the Star Party event organizers through mutual interest in the Cibola National Forest. However, it was something else to actually be out on the land with dozens of professional and amateur astronomers, a hundred or so guests and night sky students, and some incredibly high-tech equipment—all scattered about on an open patch of grasslands just off Forest Road 10.

The Star Party was a reminder that dark skies are a dwindling resource in their own right.

This kind of experience is as important as it is unique. With cities growing more populous and expansive, extreme light pollution is now commonplace across huge swaths of the U.S. This impedes our ability to experience truly dark skies and brilliant stars. The Star Party was a reminder that dark skies are a dwindling resource in their own right—yet another ingredient of the great outdoors, like wildlife habitat and clean water, that is protected when we protect wildlands.

Read more: How wildlands protect our diminishing dark skies

Light pollution has become so prevalent that the U.S. only contains 18 places certified as International Dark Sky Parks, a status conferred by the International Dark-Sky Association. Unsurprisingly, many of these are celebrated, protected public lands, including Death Valley National Park (California), Big Bend National Park (Texas) and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument (Arizona).

Using an antique telescope to spot a basketball set up on a hill 300 yards away, demonstrating how Jupiter would likely appear later at night.

Setting the telescopes up as the sun begins to set.

Given all this, it is no surprise that people crave stargazing opportunities. Indeed, while the Enchanted Skies Star Party has been an annual October event for years in Magdalena, it has only recently added a second round in the spring. This increased popularity also owes much to the active Magdalena Astronomical Society, which has worked with the Magdalena Chamber of Commerce and New Mexico Tourism Department to put the town on the map as a dark skies hub. And at sunset, I realized why.

It gets dark. Really dark.

Photo taken Saturday night at the Star Party. The Orion Nebula is situated in the Milky Way, south of Orion's Belt in the constellation of Orion. Credit: Glen Wurden.  

Shortly after dusk, John Briggs, a local astronomer, gave us an impassioned introduction to what we might see that night. As he pointed from one constellation to another—with one of those crazy laser pointers that creates a faint green line of light…to the stars—he let us know just how rare this level of darkness is these days. According to John’s report from Saturday night, “my Sky Quality Meter (SQM) reading of 21.7 was two tenths darker than I'd ever recorded before. It was also within one tenth of the darkest sky ever recorded by Unihedron itself, according to the company website!”

Tips: Plan your own wild stargazing trip

After John’s presentation, the pros and semi-pros returned to their telescopes, explaining what we were seeing. Between the shooting star gasps every few minutes, being able to see Jupiter’s stripes and four moons, two other galaxies, Orion’s nebulae, and a hundred-plus people giddy like little kids (and their little kids giddy like little kids)—I left with a new layer of love for New Mexico. I have always known how special our landscapes are; until the star party, though, I hadn’t fully appreciated their importance for connecting us to the cosmos.

The Cibola National Forest is currently developing a new master forest plan to direct how the forest will be managed for the next 15-20 years. The Wilderness Society is working to make sure that the forest’s undeveloped wildlands are conserved in that, which will help keep our night skies dark and our starscapes bright.

Magdalena has two wilderness areas to the south, the Apache Kid Wilderness and the Withington Wilderness, and it is surrounded by roadless national forest land, Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Areas, and wildlife refuges. All of this undeveloped wildland helps create the light-show that you see when the sun goes down.