Dark Night Skies in the High Desert

Grant Tandy

Author: Renee Patrick  |  Published: March 21, 2022  |  Category: Profile

Meet ONDA volunteer Rachel Kato and learn more about her contribution to help people understand the importance of the largest remaining expanse of night sky darkness in the contiguous United States.

Rachel Kato grew up in Oregon, but only recently started exploring landscapes east of the Cascades.

“Five years ago I started taking day trips to Central Oregon and fell in love with it, which inspired me to continue traveling further and further east. Now most of the time when my husband and I go hiking we end up doing a hike east of the Cascades. I am obsessed with desert plants and want to see them every chance I get,” Rachel explained.

In fall 2021 she reached out to ONDA with an idea to create a story map based on a unique aspect of the high desert: dark night skies. “I was finishing up my GIS Certificate at Portland Community College and wanted my last project to be one that I would put my whole heart into. I decided to contact ONDA because I am so passionate about what they do, and knew that I would put that same passion into my project,” Rachel said.

“It felt great to be able to spread knowledge that can potentially aid in the conservation of the high desert, and I was also excited to get to learn about yet another thing that makes Oregon’s deserts so special. I had no idea that the largest patch of continuous dark night sky in the contiguous United States is in eastern Oregon.


Stewardship Fence Building Timelapse

Stewardship Fence Building Timelapse


What defines Oregon’s high desert?

What defines Oregon’s high desert?

Bounded by the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Blue Mountains to the north, Oregon’s high desert covers approximately 24,000 square miles. Annual rainfall in the high desert varies from 5 to 14 inches. The average elevation is 4,000 feet; at 9,733 feet, the summit of Steens Mountain is the highest point in Oregon’s high desert. The terrain of the high desert was mostly formed by a series of lava flows that occurred between 30 and 10 million years ago.

Sources: The Oregon Encyclopedia; Wikipedia  


Helen Harbin, ONDA Board Member

Helen Harbin, ONDA Board Member

“I connect with Oregon’s high desert through my feet, my eyes, my sense of smell, and all the things I hear. Getting out there is a whole body experience.” Supporting ONDA, Helen says, not only connects her with wild landscapes, but is also a good investment. “I felt like if I gave them $20, they might squeeze $23 out of it.”

“When I started putting this story map together, I didn’t know how serious the issue of light pollution was. I do a lot of reading about other environmental issues but had heard very little about this one,” she explained. “The most interesting part of the issue is how easy it is to solve. Other types of pollution are going to take much more science and personal sacrifice to combat, but reducing light pollution is simple to do and takes little effort, but it has such a large impact on improving the lives of every creature on this planet.”

For more on what you can do in eastern Oregon or even in your community and home to help combat light pollution, view Rachel’s story map and action items at the end.

“Ultimately I hope that others like me will consider what they can do in their own communities and homes to combat light pollution. I also hope that it gives people even more perspective into how important it is for us to conserve the deserts of southeastern Oregon,” she said.

As for Rachel, eastern Oregon continues to hold a fascination. She spent last summer doing fieldwork in the Vale and Burns Bureau of Land Management districts and plans to spend another field season this year in the sagebrush steppe doing vegetation sampling. Long term, she plans to get her master’s degree in Rangeland Ecology with the goal of doing research or conservation work in Oregon’s high desert landscapes.