Across the U.S., views of star-filled night skies are disappearing, and so is the sense of wonderment and awe that comes with seeing them.
Dr. Stephen Pauley, the Wagon Days grand marshal for 2017, has dedicated years of his life to combating light pollution that’s nullifying night skies. That’s how he got the nickname “Dr. Dark.”
“My friend dubbed me that years ago and it just kind of stuck,” Pauley said. “I think it’s kind of fun.”
In Ketchum and Sun Valley, Pauley lobbied the local governments to adopt dark sky ordinances that stem unneeded light from filtering into the sky and obscuring views of the stars.
Ketchum passed a new version of the ordinance earlier this year, while a revised ordinance is in the works in Sun Valley. Blaine County has also adopted a dark sky ordinance.
Pauley said he worked on a similar ordinance for unincorporated Ada County. The ordinances in Blaine County are important means of regulating light, because homes are seasonally occupied and vacation homeowners may not recognize the trouble caused by keeping their lights on, he said.
“The amount of lighting used has to be regulated,” he said. “City people want to do what they do at home. You forget about where we’re living, which is one of the most beautiful places in all the world. You can’t transpose your city way of living up here.”
Views of the Milky Way once entranced millions of Americans decades ago, but are rapidly disappearing as cities and suburbs build out and lights shine brightly at night. Eighty percent of the U.S. population has never seen the Milky Way, he said.
Pauley laments the reliance on staring at smartphone screens, particularly given the spectacular natural surroundings of the Wood River Valley.
“We’re losing that because we’re all looking down at our phones,” he said. “I think that’s a serious problem.”
Pauley was a zoology major in college and went to medical school after that. He worked as a surgeon specializing on the ear, nose and throat, and lived in Southern California with his wife and children.
He came up to Sun Valley for a rafting trip one year on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and fell in love with central Idaho.
He learned to navigate by the night sky, called celestial navigation, while staying onboard a boat with his family in Hawaii. That fostered the love of the stars.
In the 1980s, he built a home on a property he and his wife purchased in Elkhorn and he was able to combine the loves of Idaho and star-lit nights. After a few years vacationing here, he and his wife moved to Sun Valley full-time in 1991.
“We came up here and saw the stars and they’re even prettier,” he said. “I was blown away. Each time we’d come up, we’d see a little more light pollution.”
Earlier in August, Pauley gave a lecture in Stanley devoted to rekindling humanity’s love affair with the night sky, focusing on mankind’s celestial origins.
Humans and stars are undeniably intertwined. Our components—such as carbon, phosphorus, oxygen and nitrogen—were created by the nuclear fusion that powers sunlight.
“We are made of stardust, for sure,” Pauley said. “That’s why it’s important to be connected to the stars, because they are our ancestors. This is a great place in the country to do that.”
But Pauley also notes that the world and its climate is rapidly changing, and the night sky is not the only thing disappearing. Species are becoming extinct, corals are bleaching and dying, and ice is melting at the poles.
Dinosaurs inhabited the Earth for 150 million years, while Homo sapiens have only been around for 300,000 years. That’s a blink of the eye in geologic time; life on Earth started 3.8 billion years ago, Pauley said.
Pauley said the night sky can disconnect people from their obsession with smartphones and social media, and remind them of the broader universe they inhabit.
“The night sky is disappearing like the corals and the ice,” he said. “Nature has a mind of her own. What’s it going to be like in 100, 200 years?”