Darcy Shepard.

Washoe County is a special place, particularly if you prefer to be outdoors. We urbanites are pretty familiar with our slice of Lake Tahoe, Mount Rose, the Truckee River, Peavine, Pyramid Lake and other amazing places within a short hike, bike ride or drive.

But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If you head north of Reno/Sparks for about two hours, you’ll come to Gerlach, the gateway to the Black Rock Desert. Keep going north, and you’ll see why Gerlach is also known as the gateway to dark sky country.

The entire northern half of Washoe County, almost all public land, is actually a big black hole; you’ll see it easily on a map of light pollution available online. It’s another world, where paved roads turn to gravel and then disappear. It’s where signs say “no services for 100 miles”; the only sounds are the wind and the raptors; and the sky is so layered with stars, it’s hard to even find the constellations.

Our black hole is one of just a handful left in the country. Artificial light snuffed out the darkness elsewhere. Now our own dark skies are endangered.

The most “glaring” example is the proposed Ormat geothermal plant on public land bordering Gerlach. The huge industrial facility, if built, would light up the gateway to “dark sky country” and make a mockery of that moniker. Thanks to the Reno News & Review, by the way, for covering this highly controversial project. It IS a big deal, which is why Friends of Nevada Wilderness has taken the extraordinary step of joining a lawsuit to stop Ormat’s exploratory drilling. Of course, we support alternative energy —just not at that particular gateway.

Thanks, also, to the Washoe County Commission for recognizing that the people of Gerlach were not sufficiently heard and putting the project on a temporary hold.

Other federally managed public lands in remote northern Washoe County don’t face immediate threats, but remain in limbo, because they lack an official permanent designation that will protect them.

So, thanks to Sen. Jacky Rosen for attempting to rectify the situation. After consultation with conservationists, ranchers, hunters and others, she has released a proposal that would protect vast swaths of the northern county with conservation overlays, and save the starry skies.

We encourage Nevadans to learn more about the value of dark skies by joining us at our annual family friendly Dark Sky Festival, Friday and Saturday, Aug. 18 and 19 in Cedarville, Calif., just over the state line form the Massacre Rim Dark Sky Sanctuary in far northern Washoe County.

Yes, we love Lake Tahoe and the Truckee. But there, you’ll be hard pressed to lose yourself in the Milky Way on a moonless night; it’s hidden by all the artificial light. You’ll need to go north for that experience. We hope to see you there, under the stars.

Darcy Shepard is associate director of the Friends of Nevada Wilderness, which is dedicated to preserving all qualified Nevada public lands as wilderness, protecting present and potential wilderness from ongoing threats, informing the public about the values of and need for wilderness, and restoring and improving the management of wild lands. Learn more at www.nevadawilderness.org.

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