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Protecting Flagstaff’s Dark Skies around Naval Observatory

Civilization is creeping up on the U.S. Naval Observatory. At risk, said USNO Director Dr. Paul Shankland, is its dark sky status, which is important to astronomers and astrophysicists, and to national security.

“In a general sense, we are responsible for the celestial reference frame,” he said, which is a catalog of about a billion stars and takes many years to build. The stars are still used for navigation purposes, for spacecraft, space probes and satellites. Thousands of satellites are in orbit enabling operations on Wall Street, ATM transactions, cell phone transmissions and power grid functions.

“If we don’t keep those things protected, then it becomes a problem. It is our job to help other agencies understand what is happening in space.”

Thus, as the sky around the observatory gets brighter, it becomes harder to see what is going on in space.

To ensure Flagstaff’s dark skies are not jeopardized by urban sprawl, a Joint Land Use Study (JLUS) is an opportunity for the Department of Defense to have an open discussion with local and state officials. Camp Navajo is a partner in the study.

The outcome of the study will be to create a comprehensive strategic plan to ensure the lasting compatibility of military installations in cooperation with neighboring communities as they develop, and city and county government needs.

Examples of concerns include development coming too close to the facility, which could be caused by a change in a zoning variance for homes or an industrial development.

“There are very few places left in the U.S. that allow this type of [dark sky] capability we have here,” said Shankland. “As part of the department of defense, we have a mission to protect the country.”

The observatory is located 15 miles south of Flagstaff at 7,500 feet.

Coconino County was nominated by the DOD to oversee the study, said Jason Christelman, project manager for Coconino County.

“The two missions we are trying to protect in context with appropriate development are dark skies and encroachment around Camp Navajo,” Christelman said. “The area is growing and it is a good time to get all these concerns out of the way.”

Phases in the study include: gathering community input; identifying potential land uses, recognizing zoning conflicts and infrastructure considerations; resolving conflicts; and finalizing the JLUS report.

The process is expected to take about a year and a half.

The next public meeting is scheduled for Sept. 6, with the location and time to be announced.

For more information, call 928-679-8867 or visit the website of Coconino County. FBN


By Patty McCormac, FBN


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