Agate Fossil Beds Offers Night Sky Viewing


By Kerri Rempp
Discover Northwest Nebraska

There are a lot of things Northwest Nebraska doesn’t have when compared to other destinations: beaches, miles of retail shopping, professional sports teams…traffic, crowded trails, air and light pollution.

The lack of light pollution translates to an attraction many residents take for granted, the night sky.

Agate Fossil Beds offers a variety of night sky programming. Photo by Brandon Davenport/Discover Northwest Nebraska

The “World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness,” commissioned in 2016, indicates that 80% of the world’s population lives under skyglow. Millions of children around the world will never see the Milky Way in their lifetime.

According to the International Dark Sky Association, there is growing evidence that, in addition to never enjoying the sight of dark skies, light pollution is connected to increasing energy consumption, disrupts the ecosystem and wildlife, harms human health and negatively affects crime and safety rates.

At Agate Fossil Beds National Monument south of Harrison, Tera Lynn Gray, the new lead interpretive ranger, and her husband, Jason, the regional manager for the Black Hills Parks & Forest Association, are working to inspire awe, awareness and enjoyment of the night skies in residents and visitors.

Jason and Tera Lynn Gray are hosting a series of night sky programming at Agate Fossil Beds this year. Photo by Kerri Rempp/Discover Northwest Nebraska

The park has already hosted two night sky events this season, one focused on the stories of the constellations and another introducing kids to the wonders of astronomy (with ice cream!). Four more are planned from now until September.

The next night sky program will be a new adventure for the park. On June 24, 50 pre-registered guests will be allowed to campout at the Agate Fossil Beds; the park does not allow camping at any other time, but Gray wanted to offer the opportunity to spend an entire night under the stars with interpretive elements.

On July 1, the park will offer a full moon hike from 7-9 p.m., and on Aug. 12, visitors can view the Perseids through telescopes. The final program will take place Sept. 9, when Jason will lead an astrophotography 101 program.

Calling himself “a geek from birth,” Jason says the night skies have always been fascinating to him. The ability to combine it with the cultural aspect of constellation stories ranging from the Greco-Roman era to Native American beliefs and the science behind the importance of the night skies to flora and fauna fulfills every desire.

“It hits every button,” he said.

The couple have spent the last several years traveling to a new detail every six months at national parks across the country. Tera Lynn, a former teacher and principal at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, has taken positions at a variety of parks, and Jason then volunteers at each one, often in the night sky programming.

“He’s done amazing stuff at the parks we’ve been,” Tera Lynn said. “We love the message of the park service,” she added, noting that their children, Travis, 15, and Ainsley, 12, have 70 junior ranger badges. In their travels, they always made plans to catch the night sky programs at the parks, and it’s not unknown for them to wake up the kids at 2 a.m. for night sky viewing.

There is a connection between the sky and Earth, and night skies need to be protected, Jason said. As an example, light pollution can wipe out a population of fireflies in two summers, he said. Agricultural growing seasons and wildlife all depend on night skies, he continued.

While the night sky programs’ main goal is to raise awareness and share the dark skies experience with visitors, Agate Fossil Beds is also hoping the programming will assist them in an application to become a certified Dark Sky Park through the International Dark Skies Association.

Jason Gray shares Native American constellation stories during a night sky program at Agate Fossil Beds earlier this year. Photo by Kerri Rempp/Discover Northwest Nebraska

While the parks’ trails will still be required to close at sunset if certification is achieved, Agate Fossil Beds will focus more programming on accessibility to night sky viewing. Some of the legwork required for certification was completed by previous staff, including a lighting survey and transitioning to compliant lighting within the park boundaries. The Grays will work together to finish the park’s other requirements for application this year.

Acquiring the certification will help visitors interested in dark skies find their way to Agate Fossil Beds, which translates to increased tourism dollars for local businesses.

Tera Lynn joined the park service after Jason set up an interview for her, noting that the commute to her job in education was stressful. Their sustainable farm in Colorado was also a challenge given the state’s water regulations. They decided the career change would be worth it because it would allow them to work together at each park.

Tera Lynn’s first posting was Agate Fossil Beds before they moved on to other locations. When it was time to pick one location and settle down again, the choice was easy for the entire family: Agate Fossil Beds.

“It was unanimous,” Tera Lynn said.

Of course, in full transparency, Jason said, the kids were lured to Harrison for the full-sized candy bars many homes give out at Halloween.

Tera Lynn took over the posting as lead interpretive ranger last September, while Jason, who has a background in finance, took the position as the regional manager for the Black Hills Parks & Forest Association, offering resources in the park stores that further interpret the stories of the parks themselves.

“We’ve slowly evolved from hard-core urban southern California types to living in Harrison,” Jason said. “There was something about Agate, the region and the environment.”

Now, working from both sides – the National Park Service and the park store – they want to put Agate Fossil Beds on the map with additional programming and exhibits, making both avenues accessible to those with disabilities given Tera Lynn’s educational background. Jason and the Black Hills Parks & Forest Association are also working to enhance the park’s interactive trailer to make Agate’s story mobile in an effort to reach new audiences.

“We love the park service, and we love this town,” Tera Lynn said, adding that she wants to connect with more community members. A volunteer experience on Martin Luther King Jr. Day brought in community members to work on the park’s archives, and it inspired at least two volunteers to become regular faces at the park.

“This is their park,” Tera Lynn said of the Sioux County residents. “Harrison is our gateway community.”

Jason has researched James Cook and his family extensively since coming to Agate Fossil Beds and what they envisioned for the park.

“It was going to be a flagship site, and there was a lot of excitement in the community,” he said. “One hundred years later, we’re trying to live up to some of that.”