MERRITT RESERVOIR – Last September, the International Dark-Sky Association confirmed what veterans of the Nebraska Star Party have known for 30 years: On a clear night, the Sandhills boast some of the darkest skies on Earth.
Thanks to a joint effort between two Nebraska state agencies, the 729-acre Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area – spilling like a broken vessel across the heart of Cherry County – is now the first certified International Dark Sky Park in the state.
“The Milky Way is so bright here it casts shadows on the ground!” said Brenda Culbertson, a solar system ambassador with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at last month’s 30th annual Nebraska Star Party. Her husband Mike, a farmer and mechanical engineer, tinkered with his telescope beside her. “Here the stars are in your face, not up in the sky. It feels like you’re on a different planet.”
The IDA called Merritt’s certification “a major first step in conserving Nebraska’s nightscape” and “an opportunity to highlight it as an astrotourism destination.” And judging by this year’s Nebraska Star Party turnout – the third highest on record, with 382 registered stargazers – the results may already be speaking for themselves.
Despite thunderstorms, soaring temperatures and haze from Canadian wildfires, vehicles from Nebraska to New York and Michigan to Massachusetts skirted the park’s weather-cracked roads all week, waiting for that one clear night beneath the stars.
“This is amazing!” said Dave Knisely, Nebraska Star Party board member and field school coordinator. “I’m looking at a galaxy – a huge galaxy – from one end to the other, right now, with just the naked eye.”
Beneath the excitement of ring nebulas and globular clusters, however, whispers circulated throughout the event that mere bureaucracy prevented Merritt Reservoir and the surrounding wildlife management area, both managed by the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, from achieving the highest classification: not that of a “Dark Sky Park,” but a full-fledged “Dark Sky Sanctuary.”
Though reluctant to comment on what she called “local politics,” former IDA director of conservation Ashley Wilson agreed.
“From my point of view, IDA would have easily accepted that site as a sanctuary,” she said. “But it appeared that the people in charge of the wildlife management area were just done. They just wanted to observe from the outside, and not really be part of the application process.”
Had the 8,900-acre wildlife management area chosen to participate, the larger Merritt area would have joined fewer than 20 other certified dark-sky sanctuaries in the world.
Sandhills natives have long cherished the clarity of their night skies. But the success of the Nebraska Star Party over three decades has confirmed just how rare that celestial theater has become in the 21st century, as artificial light pollution continues to draw the curtain.
Today, the Milky Way itself – inspiring humankind since the birth of our species – is no longer visible to roughly one-third of the planet, research shows, including 80% of Americans. In fact, between 2011-2022, Earth’s average night sky has grown brighter by 9.6% each year.
“Nobody has worse skies than I do,” said Dan Higgins, president and founder of AstroWorld TV, a YouTube channel devoted to astrophotography. He traveled to this year’s Nebraska Star Party from his home on Long Island. “If you take a look at the light pollution map for New York, it’s pure white. There’s no comparison here. These are the darkest skies I’ve ever seen.”
According to Nebraska Star Party officials, the skies over Merritt are a “true” Class 1 on the Bortle scale, a ranking system adopted by amateur astronomers to assess a given location’s stargazing potential. Other Bortle Class 1 sites include Big Bend National Park in Texas, Denali National Park in Alaska, and more.
Nebraska Star Party founder Tom Miller couldn’t quantify it when he first invited friends and family to Merritt in the summer of 1993, still “testing the waters” for a star party, he said. But he could sense the potential right away.
“It was cloudy when we first got here. We pulled up to the Snake River campground and got out, and it was so dark you couldn’t see your hands in front of your face.” When the clouds finally lifted, he knew already, the stars would explode.
Sipping a cold Leinenkugel’s, Miller narrated the Big Bang of the Nebraska Star Party from a lawn chair on “Dob Row,” a small cul-de-sac in the observation field where attendees have long gathered with their canon-sized “Dobsonian” reflecting telescopes, optimized for “deep-sky” observation.
“It’s his fault! Everything here is his fault!” yelled his friend Dragan Nikin, popping out from a trailer he purchased to haul his 600-pound, 11-foot telescope. “That’s why I’m broke.”
“They blame me for their aperture fever,” Miller said.
Born and raised in Lincoln, Miller started working for his family’s seed business fresh out of high school in 1975, overseeing a plant in Hereford, Texas. He married and started a family, all while his grind at Miller Seed Company shifted into higher gear. On the verge of burnout in the early ‘80s, he built a small observatory in his backyard and cruised the cosmos. It was something to utilize the only free hours he could find; something to shift his perspective.
“You just realize how small you are. You get out here, and you see the Milky Way, how it runs from horizon to horizon. We’re part of just one galaxy, and there are billions of galaxies in this universe,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Wow, you know?”
Soon he joined the astronomy club in nearby Amarillo. He went to the Texas Star Party near Fort Davis. It was pitch black, he said, until the clouds lifted and the stars exploded. He went the next year, too. And again after that – six years straight. When he moved back to Lincoln in 1991, he joined the Prairie Astronomy Club and convinced four other members to go back to Fort Davis with him.
When they left the desert, they started brainstorming what a star party might look like back home. Miller kept researching. The club kept debating. And in the summer of 1993, by invite only, they soft launched their very own Nebraska Star Party at Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, where the light-pollution maps fade to black; where the lake provides daytime recreation for the families in tow; where the campgrounds provide cheap, if simple accommodations; and where – on a year so wet as this – the hills virtually hum with wildflowers.
“I tell people Nebraska takes and it gives,” said Ken Plecki, who towed his 28-foot travel trailer from Willow Springs, Illinois, to this year’s event. He first attended in 2005, and no sooner had he unpacked his tent than a thunderstorm blew it away. He slept the next two nights in his car, but the skies were the best he’d ever seen.
“I had a scope. I didn’t even look through it. I just sat here and looked at the sky because the center of the Milky Way was casting a shadow,” he said, quieter now, as if it were happening all over again. “At that moment, I kind of felt like I wasn’t looking at the galaxy anymore. I was a part of it.”
The Nebraska Star Party had long been discussing the potential for dark-sky certification at Merritt. But “the spark plug that finally kicked things into high gear,” said public outreach coordinator John Johnson, was the Nebraska Tourism Commission’s new adventure travel specialist.
Originally from Georgia, Jenna Bartja had just spent the past five years working at Grand Canyon National Park, then pursuing its own accreditation from the International Dark-Sky Association (now DarkSky International), a recognized authority on light pollution.
When Bartja arrived in Nebraska in the fall of 2018, she said, “I already had this sense of dark skies as a natural resource worth protecting, and the potential for it to attract more tourism.”
She honed in first on the sparsely populated Sandhills, and then, with the enthusiastic support of the Nebraska Star Party – the Merritt area in particular: The 729-acre state recreation area, and the roughly 8,900 acres of wildlife management area surrounding it.
Bartja approached the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission a year later, delivering her compiled dark-sky readings, which far exceeded the criteria for an International Dark Sky Park. She also delivered a full inventory of the lights that would need replaced or retrofitted to meet IDA requirements.
“We weren’t really familiar with the program, so it took some time to understand the commitment there,” said Bob Hanover, Game & Parks’ assistant parks division administrator. But the commission soon agreed to begin the process, impressed by what he called “layers of value” in preserving Merritt’s night skies.
“Astro-tourism is something that we know a lot of people are interested in,” he said. “But the other side is that we know preserving dark skies has a value to the environment, to wildlife, even to recreational activities.”
After Bartja submitted the official International Dark Sky Park application in spring 2021, however, the campaign began to wobble.
Citing exceptional night sky quality and a historic dearth of public programming at Merritt, the IDA suggested they apply for sanctuary status, instead, denoting a more remote, hands-off experience and even darker skies. Shortly after doing so, however, the IDA’s new program manager exposed a fundamental misunderstanding between the submitting parties.
Unlike Bartja, the commission had never considered the surrounding wildlife management area part of the application.
Barring its inclusion, the IDA recommended they revert back to their original application for a park. The commission agreed, though why exactly it chose to omit the larger area remains unclear.
“It wouldn’t have impacted anything,” Bartja said, adding that the Merritt Reservoir Wildlife Management Area currently has no lights. “But I kind of understood there was something else going on here that they’re not sharing with me.”
Deputy director Jim Swenson dismissed the notion, claiming it was more a matter of crowd control. Given the uncertainties of a new dark-sky designation, he said, the commission hoped to confine any new influx of visitors to an area more easily serviced, and to safeguard the larger habitat area “for hunters, anglers, bird watchers, so on and so forth.”
He clarified, however, that stargazing and other activities like camping, though “not necessarily promoted” in wildlife management areas, aren’t technically prohibited, either.
The IDA ultimately declared the recreation area at Merritt Reservoir an International Dark Sky Park last September, the first in Nebraska, and the 200th IDA site worldwide. Though happy to celebrate the win, Bartja and Johnson said they haven’t yet abandoned hope for one day achieving sanctuary status.
“The true cherry on top would have been the opportunity to say not only is it the first in Nebraska, but it’s of the highest tier that this organization offers – one of only 15 in the world,” Bartja said. “That is a very elite circle.”
The Nebraska Star Party’s 30th anniversary started not with a bang, but a whisper. Like sanctuary status itself, the stars peaked briefly through the clouds before vanishing in the storm. Night after night, more of the same. A few stars. More clouds. Another storm.
And then, just as the Cherry County locals began trickling in for the public viewing on Friday night, the haze lifted, the clouds drifted and the so-called Great Rift, visible to the naked eye, cleaved the Milky Way in two. Meteors blazed through crystalline constellations. Veterans lobbied amateurs to peer through reflecting telescopes big enough to swallow a kayak. And many simply craned their necks to the sky.
“I don’t have to use a telescope,” said Knisely, the star party board member, “and that alone is enough to get you out here.”
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