ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — About 40 miles from Grants near the western edge of El Malpais National Monument, El Morro National Monument lies within an inky darkness of ultrarural New Mexico.
That it was recently certified as an International Dark Sky Park should not be much of a surprise.
“We are very happy to be able to advance the preservation of El Morro National Monument’s night skies and provide visitors with even better opportunities to experience them,” said Kelby Fuhrmann, park superintendent. “We are particularly grateful for the support that we’ve gotten from the community. This certification is the perfect marriage of technology and education. National parks are some of the best places in America to see a breathtaking array of stars, planets and neighboring galaxies.”
El Morro’s remoteness, coupled with its elevation of 7,296 feet, make it a spectacular site to absorb the night’s brilliance, said Ernie Price, chief of visitor services and interpretation for the neighboring national monuments.
“They (visitors) are going to be able to experience pristine night skies that they will not be to experience in other parts of the country,” Price said. “This is a great gesture for the community that we’re a part of. These folks, as our neighbors, everybody is interested in attracting tourism. People will come to parks and places where they can see the night skies.”
El Morro is an interesting source of local history all on its own, but adding the International Dark Sky certification just makes a visit that much more intriguing, he said.
“About 80% of Americans can’t see the Milky Way from where they live,” Price said. “When you think about it in those terms, it’s pretty amazing. Even for those of us who live in New Mexico, a lot can’t see the Milky Way. But if you’re from the Midwest or the East or one of the big cities in the West, you can’t see it either. We give people another reason to visit these (dark skies) places.”
The certification process took about a year, he said.
“First thing you do is document the quality of your night sky,” Price said. “In order to do that, you pick different spots around your monument and you go out and measure the night sky on good, dark nights, nights without a full moon and with clear skies. And you have to do it in the winter, spring, summer and fall.”
The process was educational for staff at the monument, because it helped identify areas where light pollution can be reduced.
“The other part of this program is not only about defining clear night skies, but educating ourselves and the public on how important the night skies are,” Price said. “And how to respect it and make it better with more responsible lighting practices. And restoring them, where possible, through education of communities and the public.”
The International Dark Sky Park certification means there will be a series of formal night programs, usually tied to themes, listed on the monument’s website to further attract visitors. (nps.gov/elmo)
“It’s cool to see the Milky Way and satellites and star clusters and all that. It’s awesome,” Price said. ‘The constellations and just everything about astronomy, what’s out there and what we can from the planets and their moons and our moons. But we’ll also have cultural programs. A lot of the constellations that we know about come from the Greek understanding of the night sky. But what we understand in New Mexico is that lots of people have been looking at these same stars, so we’ll look at it from a Navajo perspective and a pueblo perspective and a Zuni perspective.”
It’s all just another way to encourage people to enjoy the area, he said.
“The hope is that it’s one more thing the area – Grants and Cibola County and even McKinley County – can use to promote,” Price said. “It’s another feather in the cap, another thing that might draw people into the area.”