As we celebrate Dark Sky Week (April 5 to 12) this year, I’m reminded that we’ve made three and a half trips around the Sun since the creation of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve.

COVID-19 has already occupied one of those three and a half trips. But did you know the profession/hobby of astrophotography has more than tripled in popularity since the start of the pandemic? As our lives slowed, more people were looking up to the cosmos. Today, there are more people than ever before who are gaining an appreciation for dark skies. Or another way to put it, more people are seeing the negative impacts of light pollution.

I know from personal experience that once you point a regular camera and lens at the sky to image the Milky Way, Orion’s Nebula, etc., you quickly succumb to what we call “aperture fever.” This is defined as the clamoring for bigger lenses and telescopes to peer even further into the cosmos and the heavens. Getting started is actually much easier than you might think. There are great articles and YouTube videos that show you how to use regular camera gear to start your journey in astrophotography.

With our entire society decoupled from the hustle and bustle of pre-COVID life, there has been a rediscovery of our local surroundings and getting outdoors. With this appreciation has also come the necessity to protect it. Such is the case within our country’s first and only Dark Sky Reserve in Central Idaho. It was created not to remember what the skies were like, but rather to protect the pristine darkness for future generations. It is thus incumbent upon us to limit sources of light pollution throughout the reserve. There are two proposed projects in the Sawtooth Valley, which make up the very center of the Dark Sky Reserve, that will irreparably harm and lessen the darkness we need to preserve.

The first is a proposed 195-foot tall cell phone tower on a ridge overlooking Redfish Lake. This tower would be a gangrenous wound in what is otherwise one of the most picturesque and gorgeous places in all of Idaho. The shores of Redfish Lake offer breathtaking views of the Sawtooth Mountains by day and transform into an almost planetarium-like setting at night with the core of the Milky Way rising and seemingly pivoting about Grand Mogul. A tower of this size doesn’t get to vanish into the shadow of night because the FAA will require it to be lighted. 

The other project is centered around a wealthy landowner and his desire to build an airstrip on his 756,000-acre property in the center of the Sawtooth Valley and the Dark Sky Reserve. There are a ton of problems with this project. There are already two airports – one in Stanley, another at Smiley Creek – within a 10 to 15-minute drive from the property. Any airstrip approved by the FAA will come with strict rules about lighting. A project like this to serve the needs of one person or family will bring with it an atrocious amount of light pollution in the heart of the Dark Sky Reserve. 

One of the more breathtaking vantage points is along the drive up Fourth of July Creek Road, looking back to the West and seeing the full length of the Sawtooths (hence its name). This is a wonderful panorama by day, but by mid-to-late October this spot is otherworldly when seen at night with the Milky Way setting over the spine of the Sawtooth Range.

We have to protect our dark skies because it’s next to impossible to turn off the lights once they get approved and installed. And each time we allow projects like this to degrade our cherished and protected landscapes, we make it a little easier for the next project, and so on.

I hope you all take the time this weekend, as it’s a New Moon, to get out and go for a walk or travel into the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve and revel in the harmony of the cosmos and soak in the darkness.

– Matt Benjamin, astrophotographer