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Oregon Outback becomes the largest International Dark Sky Sanctuary

A star-filled night over Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary
A star-filled night over Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary.
 Credit: Shutterstock

Lake County, Oregon

The Oregon Outback Dark Sky Network (ODSN) has completed the first phase of a multi-phased project to establish a landscape-level International Dark Sky Sanctuary within the largest, contiguous dark sky zone in the lower 48 United States. Phase 1 (Lake County) of the proposed Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary (OOIDSS) was certified as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary by DarkSky International, making it the largest International Dark Sky Sanctuary to date. 

Phase 1 comprises 2.5 million acres in Lake County, southeastern Oregon. The certified area is about one-half the size of New Jersey in a region frequently referred to as the “Oregon Outback.” This novel nomination involved numerous federal, state, and local officials negotiating project boundaries and developing and endorsing a joint Lighting Management Plan (LMP). This effort required broad stakeholder engagement and is a model of collaboration and cooperation. When complete, the full OOIDSS will encompass over 11.4 million acres of protected night skies. 

According to DarkSky Delegate Dawn Nilson, the environmental consultant who managed and authored the application, “As the population of Oregon and the trend of light pollution continue to rise, the unparalleled scale and quality of the Outback’s dark skies will long serve as a starry refuge for people and wildlife alike. Adherence to the LMP will allow this large expanse of land to serve as a demonstration site of sustainable lighting principles not only within southeastern Oregon but possibly the Pacific Northwest Region.” 

Bob Hackett, Executive Director of Travel Southern Oregon and a tireless facilitator of the nomination, added, “This four-year collaboration brings together so many of the elements we try to achieve in regenerative tourism. It not only elevates the destination experience for visitors to Lake County and opens up opportunities for local businesses, but it also helps agencies and residents steward their lands in ways that celebrate a legacy of starry night skies for generations to come.”

The Oregon Outback is situated in the northern extent of the Basin and Range Province of the Western United States. It’s sparsely populated, very remote, and primarily comprises public lands. It’s a high desert area characterized by sage scrub and abrupt changes in topography that alternates between narrow faulted mountain chains and flat, arid valleys and basins. Within this unique geography of geological wonders is priority habitat for an array of wildlife, including American pronghorn, bighorn sheep, sage grouse, white-tailed jackrabbits, and migratory birds navigating the Pacific Flyway. The region is also culturally significant and is home to a 13,000-year-old human occupation site. Dispersed within the Oregon Outback are hot springs, wild horses, private rangelands, ranches, and lots of cattle.

According to the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute  (2016), the Outback is located within the largest, contiguous, pristine dark sky zone in the lower 48 United States, and this certification helps to protect a large portion of that zone. Of special note, within the Lake County portion of the OOIDSS are the unincorporated communities of Adel, Plush, and Summer Lake, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, a portion of the Fremont-Winema National Forest, nearly 1.7 million acres of land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), including several areas designated as Wilderness Study Areas and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Summer Lake Wildlife Area, nearly 80,000 acres of state-owned rangeland, and the Oregon Outback Scenic Byway.

In addition to the many legal jurisdictions approving a single LMP, public officials and a variety of other stakeholders participated in night sky monitoring, lighting inventories, lighting improvements (i.e., decommissioned 14 lights and retrofitted 60 lights on public and private land), and public outreach to bring the nomination together. Education and outreach efforts have included Stargazing & Natural Night Skies Webinar Series, screenings of the film Saving the Dark, tri-county library access to Night Sky Adventure Kits, dark sky gatherings, local dark sky videos, educational exhibit tables coinciding with popular local events, dark sky presentations and workshops, and library programs. Outreach has even included partnering with the neighboring Idaho Dark Sky Alliance to co-host educational events.  

Phil Milburn, a District Manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), an agency that retrofitted a majority of its lights at the Summer Lake Wildlife Area headquarters, stated, “ODFW is pleased to be part of the efforts to preserve the dark skies of Lake County. The extensive wetlands of Lake County are one of the most important habitats of the Pacific Flyway. Recent efforts by partners in Lake County to preserve dark skies is a welcomed action to protect wildlife from the well documented negative impacts of light pollution.”

The U.S. BLM manages nearly 68% of the land within the certified area. Todd Forbes, BLM Lakeview District Manager, stated, “It was easy to get behind this proposal as the lighting in most of this area hasn’t changed in generations. By following a simple lighting management plan and the guidance outlined in the BLM Technical Note on Night Sky and Dark Environments, we can maintain this scarce resource.”   

Scott Stoffel, Forest Recreation Program Manager of the Fremont-Winema National Forest, added, “I’m optimistic that the establishment of dark sky recreational opportunities in our area will contribute to local tourism in a manner that preserves our way of life in Oregon’s Outback and respects this incredible landscape.”

The ODSN will continue efforts to expand the OOIDSS to an eventual 11.4-million-acre sanctuary (i.e., Phase 2) under the same moniker. Phase 2 includes portions of Harney and Malheur Counties to the east of Lake County. The application programmatically describes the necessary components of the expansion area. Only a few lighting inventories retrofits, and local approvals are outstanding in the Phase 2 area. Once completed, the ODSN will submit a nomination application addendum to Phase 1. The intentions behind pursuing a large-scale sanctuary are to protect much of the unique, pristine, dark sky zone, to keep any additional dark sky recreation dispersed (as it is now), to allow a number of incorporated gateway communities to economically benefit from the same project, and to more effectively and efficiently manage a certification within a remote area.

“Congratulations to the Oregon Outback Dark Sky Network team for achieving a monumental milestone in our journey towards preserving the night. Your dedication and collaboration have made Phase 1 of the Oregon Outback International Dark Sky Sanctuary a reality, showcasing the power of collective action in safeguarding night sky protections. We look forward to moving on to the subsequent phases of the project and making this the first landscape-scale Sanctuary certification of its kind,” remarked Amber Harrison, Dark Sky Places Program Manager.

About the International Dark Sky Places Program: 
Founded in 2001, the International Dark Sky Places Program is a non-regulatory and voluntary program to encourage communities, parks, and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through effective lighting policies, environmentally responsible outdoor lighting, and public education. When used indiscriminately, artificial light can disrupt ecosystems, impact human health, waste money and energy, contribute to climate change, and block our view and connection to the universe. Lake County now joins more than 210 Places that have demonstrated robust community support for dark sky advocacy and strive to protect the night from light pollution.” Learn more by visiting

About DarkSky International:
The mission of DarkSky is to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting. Learn more at

Bob Hackett
Travel Southern Oregon
[email protected]

Dawn Nilson
Fibonacci Enterprises
[email protected] 

Amber Harrison
Dark Sky Places Program Manager, DarkSky International
+1 (520) 347-6363
[email protected]