Nestled in the extreme northeast corner of California is the tiny community of Cedarville. One of the few communities of Surprise Valley, which spans the border across to Nevada, is one of the darkest areas in the lower 48 states. In fact, on a moonless night, you may have trouble discerning constellations because of the sheer number of stars.
“It’s estimated about 80% of the population in the world lives under sky glow,” said Jen Rovenpera. She is an archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). She has been involved in preserving the night sky of this remote area for over six years. Sky glow means so much light pollution that people cannot see the stars and the planets.
The Milky Way above some dark sky viewers at the Dark Sky Festival in Cedarville, Calif., on August 19, 2022. – image: Richard Bednarski
“But out here, because we’re so rural, we have some of the best night sky viewing in the world and stay up late tonight and watch the star.”
Since 2019, Rovenpera and Friends of Nevada Wilderness, a non-profit based in Reno, have hosted a dark sky festival. The reasoning is the nearby Massacre Rim Dark Sky Sanctuary. An area about 100,000 acres in size is host too many things worth preserving, from the rugged volcanic tableland geography to the unbelievably dark nighttime sky.
People gathered at the Dark Sky Festival’s science fair in Cedarville CA on Saturday, August 19, 2022 – image: Richard Bednarski
The area is public land classified as a wilderness study area, meaning it has the qualities of a wilderness area and is under consideration to become an officially designated wilderness. Through an act of Congress, a wilderness study area can become Wilderness, receiving permanent protection from human development. A boon to both the local environment and the night sky.
Preserving the darkness
With so many people unable to see the night sky, our connection to the universe and the natural world may weaken. The International Dark Sky Association began working to preserve the night sky in 1988. Since then, communities worldwide have worked to establish over 1000 dark sky areas. There are measures in place to protect the quality of the night sky.
“The simplest thing is just only to use light where you need it,” said Rovenpera. She emphasized it is one of the easiest things anyone can do to reduce light pollution. “Using timers or motion sensors for lights instead of just having floodlights on all night long.”
Another way communities living near dark skies can protect the night sky is to shield lights, so the light points down to the ground rather than up into the sky. “Even closing the curtains at night reduces the amount of light pollution,” Rovenpera said. She added that many of these measures also conserve energy, effectively saving money.
“When we work to preserve dark skies, we are also working to preserve the integrity of the land below those skies,” said Nora Ritcher, the grants and operations manager at Friends of Nevada Wilderness. Where there are no lights, there is often very little development, and all of that works hand in hand with Wilderness. Dark skies enrich the functionality of ecosystems, habitats, and ecological communities (humans included) that have evolved to depend on a natural day-night cycle.
The circadian rhythm is a cycle that helps animals and humans maintain our energy levels, get much-needed rest, and generally keep us healthy. Many animals also rely on this cycle. If you have ever tried to sleep with a bright light shining into your bedroom at night, you know that light pollution impacts the sleep cycle.
Wildlife, such as bobcats, mountain lions, and even moths, rely on darkness to survive. The sphinx moth is one of the few nighttime pollinators that live in the Massacre Rim Dark Sanctuary. Other animals that rely on darkness include owls and the Greater Sage Grouse, a species on the brink of being listed on the endangered species act.
The economic impact
One of the main reasons for the annual Dark Sky Festival is to bring astro-tourism to the area, which can provide an economic boost to the small community of Cedarville. A small ranching community at the foot of the Warner mountains is where people go to get away from it all. It is considered one of the last holdouts of the west, something local business owner Janet Irene is adamant about maintaining.
“The most exciting thing for me has been the awakening that everybody just doesn’t know what there is to see,” explained Janet Irene. She has lived in the valley for over 50 years and has run the Country Hearth for almost 40 years. Her restaurant is where the community gathers for coffee and, in a typically rural fashion, is often the place to get caught up with the new and community events.
“I think that it’s good to see people’s eyes open to what’s available and what is really up there,” said Irene. She has been part of the dark sky festival since it began. In 2019, her rose garden hosted a handful of telescopes. Since then, she has seen a positive impact on the community.
This year, her garden hosted a night sky painting class and a science fair where the BLM had over a dozen posters about the night sky and other nocturnal-related activities.
The dark sky party has had to contend with the pandemic and wildfire smoke. Though it is in its infancy, it seems to be making headway as an annual event. “It was the second year when I started beginning to realize that this was making a huge impact on our valley,” said Irene. She thinks this year has brought in at least twice as many people as previous years. During the science fair, her staff was hard-pressed to keep up with the influx of people looking to get a cup of coffee, some of her famous donuts, or a hearty plate of biscuits and gravy.
“It has been nice having people come in and just [hear] little comments that they make,” said Irene. She remembers a local girl first looking through a telescope and the wonder in her eyes at a previous year’s event.
“She had seen a science book in my gift shop on the solar system, and she came in to ask if she could buy it. And I said, you can have it,” explained Irene. She talked about a family from Alturas, which is just over the mountains to the west, having never been to Cedarville nor understood how dark the night sky is in the region.
“I just want to say how much I appreciate the government…the part that they play and making this work, because we could never we could never do it alone,” said Irene. “People are going to be calling me for months to tell me what their experiences were here.”
“We have held events at the Country Hearth for the past five years, and I have only ever heard people rave about the food, and don’t even get me started with the maple bars,” explained Ritcher. She said the Sunrise Motel and the Surprise Valley Hot Spring, two of three places to stay in the valley, were completely booked during the event.
Mugs waiting to be filled with coffee at the Country Hearth in Cedarville, Calif. on Saturday, August 19, 2022 – image: Richard Bednarski
Rovenpera has lived in the valley for over ten years. She has seen an uptick in dark sky tourism, especially since the designation. She encourages people to visit the area and experience the darkness, but be prepared to travel in rough desert country.
“The wilderness study area is pretty rugged,” explained Rovenpera. She suggested anyone traveling into the area have more water than they think they need and a full-size spare tire. She also said many roads are inaccessible without high clearance or four-wheel drive. “Just staying in Surprise Valley, this community, they have great opportunities in the valley to nighttime viewing here.”
“An amazing resource”
The dark sky is always above us. The more light we produce will further reduce our ability to see the Milky Way or even Andromeda, the closest galaxy to us, which is viewable by the naked eye. The Massacre Rim Dark Sky Sanctuary is so dark that the Milky Way can cast a shadow on a moonless night. The amount of stars becomes almost overwhelming.
During a meteor shower, such as the Perseids, one of the best shows all year, there could be over 100 shooting stars per hour. They will all be visible under the immense sky of this rural area.
For Bre Guy, the night sky in Cedarville is one of the reasons she chose to spend her summer working in the valley. “I love looking at the stars, so it was a perfect fit to be able to come out here,” she said.
She is from Missoula, Montana, a place with a dark sky but more light pollution. After the dark sky festival, she said she is now aware of the Massacre Rim Dark Sky Sanctuary and the International Dark Sky Association.
“It’s such an amazing resource, so just trying to preserve the night sky because it’s important for us, it’s important for the planet,” said Rovenpera.
This story was first published with the Sierra Nevada Ally