Letters from the West

As Stanley welcomes eclipse viewers, dark-sky backers shine a light on their cause

This tiny community of 63 year-round residents had the usual summer weekend crowd on Saturday. The Mountain Village Mercantile was filled with shoppers. Cars lined up to pay $4.29 for a gallon of gas.

The crowds of tens of thousands predicted to arrive here for Monday’s eclipse had not been seen in the restaurants and shops of the town, which is part of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. But the campgrounds and trailheads into the nearby wilderness were so packed that the U.S. Forest Service was considering closing some for public safety.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen Sunday and Monday,” said Phil Enright, a librarian at the Stanley Library. “The businesses invested a lot of money in this, and they want to get it back.”

Whatever happens, the U.S. Forest Service is ready. The agency manages the 756,000 acres of public land in the recreation area, which spans from just north of Ketchum to just north of Stanley. It has 70 rangers and other others spread out to assist people who have come from around the world to watch the 2-minute, 11-second total eclipse. Information posts are spread throughout the area, including one with a food truck west of Stanley on Idaho 21.

“For us this isn’t about crowd control,” said Kit Mullen, Sawtooth National Forest supervisor. “It’s about making sure everyone has a good time.”

Still, rangers are letting people know they cannot have campfires, because of high fire danger. Skies over Stanley became smoky Saturday afternoon as a fire burned in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

They’re telling people to keep their food and garbage stored away from bears, which have been active lately. The Forest Service has closed off several areas to protect spawning salmon, and it closed several roads for the weekend.

Several astronomy groups have chosen the recreation area to watch the eclipse. One is Slooh, a Connecticut-based online observatory company with an international community of 80,000 members. The group says its mission is “connecting humanity through communal exploration of the universe.”

Slooh will set up in Elk Creek Meadows, west of Stanley. It will aim powerful telescopes at the sun and stream the images on its website. It will share them with The Weather Channel, ABC, the BBC and CNN.

The Boise Astronomical Society will have telescopes in Stanley’s Pioneer Park.

The society initially planned to bring 2,000 members but trimmed its footprint to about 200 in the meadows. It had a stargazing party Friday. Volunteers set up powerful telescopes and allowed camper-members to view Jupiter and its moons and Saturn and its rings. Above the Sawtooth Mountains, the Milky Way shined bright in the dark sky.

Groups including the Idaho Conservation League are seeking to get the International Dark-Sky Association to certify a 909,000-acre Dark Sky Reserve including Stanley, the communities of the Wood River Valley and the surrounding open space.

Steve Pauley, a retired ear, nose and throat specialist from Ketchum, has earned the name “Doctor Dark” for his crusade against light pollution in his home town. He helped secure strict regulations in Ketchum and Sun Valley in 2000 and 2004. Now he’s pushing for the first Dark Sky Reserve in the U.S. through a partnership of land managers.

“The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve is a spot [that should be] set aside for getting back to our origins,” Pauley said.

Steve Botti, president of the Stanley City Council and a promoter of the Dark Sky Reserve, said the eclipse is helping to win more supporters, especially among astronomers.

“We’re hoping it helps us get our message out to the people,” he said.

Pauley has watched three total solar eclipses, two on boats and the last in 2001 on the Zambezi River in Africa.

“That was very primal,” he said. “We are made of stardust and must connect with the night sky to see our origins.”

Pauley will watch the eclipse from Grand Targhee, the ski resort near Driggs on the west slope of the Tetons. He’s excited that the eclipse has become a communal event.

All people have to do is walk outside, stop looking down at their smartphone screens and look up, he said.

“We need to put things in perspective, to diminish our perceived self-importance and to develop some humility by understanding where we came from,” Pauley said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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