Astronomy Observatories

Kitt Peak National Observatory is about 40 miles west of Tucson, AZ in an area once known for its dark skies.


Fifteen people sat in a semi-circle in what appeared to be the top end of a silo. A moving rectangle of night sky could be seen through the roof as it rotated noisily above us.  Despite being less than 100 miles from Mexico, the night air was surprisingly cold and the breeze that rushed through the slot didn’t help.

Fixed to the floor in the center of the space was a 20-inch telescope, and our guide, Brian, manipulated its position to track the roof slot. With a few computer clicks, he lined up the telescope with a distant star and in turn we each took a look.

We were part of a night sky tour on Kitt Peak west of Tucson, Arizona on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Constructed in the late 1950’s, Kitt Peak National Observatory was at one time the top observatory in the world. Today, it no longer supports the world’s largest telescopes but still has the largest collection (25) of optical scopes on the planet as well as two radio telescopes. This includes a 500-foot-long telescope designed to observe the sun. New technology that cuts through atmospheric distortion helps these older telescopes keep up with the competition by improving resolution. It is still a busy place for astronomy research.

Kitt Peak Observatory is part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory whose other member observatory is, oddly, in South America. Their mission, “is to enable discovery in ground-based optical and infrared (OIR) astronomy and astrophysics.”

There are a lot of astronomy observatories in the world. However, they can’t just be built anywhere. When trying to see objects that are many light-years away, clarity is paramount. Observatories need the darkest skies possible, a high proportion of cloudless nights, and clean and dry air to minimize distortion. For that reason, observatories tend to be on mountain tops and far from civilization. That is why South America’s Chile, and specifically the Atacamba Desert, have half of the world’s largest optical telescopes.

 So, if Kitt Peak Observatory’s 26-foot diameter telescope isn’t the biggest, what is? That title probably rests with the Gran Telescopio Canarias based in Spain’s Canary Islands. It has a 34-foot mirror. It is closely followed though by the Keck 1 and Keck 2 telescopes located Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii. These 25-year-old telescopes have 32.8-foot mirrors. A 96-foot diameter scope is under construction that will dwarf all others.

Not all observatories allow the public to visit. However, Southern Idaho is fortunate to have a 24-inch telescope available in the Centennial Observatory at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. One of the main purposes for this telescope is public education and there are a number of programs for stargazing. And unlike our Kitt Peak tour which had a real financial bite, these programs are free or next to it. Find out more by visiting their website at:

In 1543, Copernicus proved that the Earth rotates around the sun and not vice versa. He was confident of his calculations but was afraid to publish his work because it defied the best thinking at the time. Since then, the science of astronomy has continued to advance and to challenge our beliefs and expand our minds. For instance, over 3,000 exoplanets, planets in other star systems, have been discovered. It is now thought that the Milky Way alone could hold up to 11 billion Earth-like planets that orbit within the habitable distance from their star. Astronomical observatories play a key role in gathering in the knowledge that rocks and blesses our world.

Fun Fact

Stephen O’Meara, a dark-sky connoisseur, claims that eyes dark-adapted for 30 minutes are six times more sensitive to light than eyes dark-adapted for 15 minutes.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.

Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!

On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.

Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf. You can donate any amount you wish, it all helps to support the wildlife you love.

If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho