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The Dark Skies of Bruneau Dunes State Park

The Dark Skies of Bruneau Dunes State Park


BRUNEAU — The Milky Way’s purple and blue star clusters sparkling brightly over the dunes of Bruneau Dunes State Park is an extraordinary sight. The park, nestled 20 miles south of Mountain Home, is world-renowned for its dark skies and quiet spaces. It is one of only two public observatories in the Gem State.

But Bruneau Dunes rests in a precarious space. The park is navigating the remaining steps of the International Dark-Sky Association’s process to become recognized as an International Dark Sky Park with a silver level skies designation as its goal.

The association, however, does not select Dark Sky locales. A site, like Bruneau Dunes, is nominated by a group or individual and must follow a comprehensive and rigorous application process to become recognized. Following and meeting certain criteria to gain designation can take between one and three years on average, but nearly five years have passed since the process began at the park. Challenges include management changes, steps to alter the park’s lights, and getting the community more involved, but the formal designation is close.

First steps

In August 2017, Bruneau Dunes received a $20,000 grant from the Laura Moore Cunningham Foundation to assist in replacing the park’s old lights with approved lights. To add to the upgrade, the park also installed red-colored downward-facing shields to maximize the amount of light pollution emitted. Since blue light is the brightest emitter of visible light on the light spectrum, changing from blue to the dimmest, red light emission, naturally shifts the skies in and around the park darker, helping establish better meter readings for maximum sky quality.

“Replacing the lights in the park first was the biggest step we needed to take,” Assistant Park Manager Bryce Bealba said. “That was about a two year process, which we wrapped up back at the end of 2018.”

Bruneau Dunes State Park Observatory

The Bruneau Dunes State Park Observatory houses the 'Obsession' 25-inch Newtonian Reflector telescope which helps astronomers gaze at planets, nebulas and the Milk Way galaxy.

Bealba said the new bulbs and shields immediately had a beneficial effect on meter readings, a measurable step the park can show the IDA as it moves forward for recognition. But posing hurdles for Bruneau Dunes are urban centers Boise, Mountain Home, Mountain Home Air Force Base and even Twin Falls — municipalities that can affect the sky quality in the park.

“Three hours south (of Bruneau) is nothing but jackrabbits and sagebrush,” Bealba said. “The Milky Way and stars in the south can be seen very well. But the communities north and west of us pose the biggest challenge when viewing the skies above.”

The community speaks up

The park is talking to the community for support — a critical component of the Dark-Sky Park application process. Reaching out to the mayor of Mountain Home, the commander of Mountain Home Air Force Base, and Mountain Home Municipal Airport for support netted a positive response.

“Mountain Home Municipal Airport gave us consideration when they installed lights that face north and away from the park,” Bealba said. “They installed lights on the north side of the runway, which helped move the light away from the park.”

Bruneau Dunes State Park Observatory

The Bruneau Dunes State Park Observatory points its lens at the Milky Way galaxy. 

Presenting benefits to Mountain Home Mayor Rich Sykes, Bealba said switching public lights in the city to similar lights in the park can help the town and its residents in a few different ways. By lowering the light pollution levels, it not only helps animals, but it also helps humans too. Furthermore, changing out some lights would be cost-effective for the city in terms of energy consumption.

“Animals can hunt easier and see more efficiently and naturally, and it also preserves the night sky,” Bealba said. “People in town have ways to install these lights for their own home and they do not take away from quality (lighting) or life.”

Bruneau Dunes’ latest effort involves asking community members via social media to submit handwritten letters or emails pledging their support to the park for submission to the IDA — and to fulfill the community requirements necessary for Dark Sky Park recognition. Comments from the park’s Facebook page demonstrate ample support. Bealba said the comment submission period is still open and he encourages park visitors to offer feedback on the online platform.

The application process will likely last two more months, with one or two more meter readings when the next new moon appears under clear skies.

“We want to preserve this space for our visitors,” Bealba said. “People come from all around to visit these kinds of places. The numbers (park visits) keep trending up every year and this designation will keep the ball rolling. It’ll allow more telescopes to go up to see the sky.”

Bruneau Dunes State Park Observatory

Staff astronomer Kirk Long talks about the 25-inch Newtonian Reflector telescope enclosed in The Bruneau Dunes State Park Observatory.

Visit the Bruneau Dunes State Park webpage for more information about the park and the IDA webpage to learn more about Dark Sky Parks around the world.


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