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Night sky

Stars over the Iraqi desert. Public lands in Montana. Winning the lottery.

Those disparate trains of thought, given context, form an indelible connection in my mind. Quite some time ago now, my unit set up a combat outpost in Ninewah Province, over a hundred miles from any roads. For the first three days we were there, we endured a seemingly unrelenting sandstorm. It would fill in our footsteps shortly after we made them.

The storm ended around midnight on the third day and the clear skies of night stopped everything. We all stood, looking upward, at the kind of sky we had never seen before. Radiant colors, vibrant swirls of distant nebulae. It took us an hour to go back to our regular routines. We had truly seen the stars. I promised myself that I would find a way to see such majesty again.

Now, many years later, I live in the great state of Montana. A transplant from everywhere and nowhere but mostly the East Coast. Every time I get the chance I drive, bike or walk out to Montana’s public lands. Maybe to camp or hike. Maybe for research or photographs.

But at night, far from the fires of industry and the myriad other lights of civilization, I look upward. I see the stars. Yes, it is a different picture, but it is just as lovely — and less inclined to scorpion infestations. The public lands of Montana give me access to the stars in all their wondrous splendor, helping me keep a promise that, as of just a few weeks ago, is now a decade old.

It feels like winning the lottery, just not in a lump sum. It is like getting annual payments spread over many years. Only those payments will continue so long as humanity endures on the Earth. Gratification is extended, perpetual, not instant and fleeting.

Yet, those public lands are under threat with the prospect of a different lottery winning: that single lump sum as a return, that instant gratification that will soon fade away, that of developing these lands for profit. If these lands are lost, ground under the heel of our expanding subjugation of nature, the stars are lost with them. Those city lights and the thick smog of pollution will drown them out. The distant light of a million centuries, glowing silver across the vast darkness of space, gone to the development of a year.

Let us keep our public lands. I am just one small person in a very large world telling my own little story, but there are many thousands more just like me. Please, let us continue to look up to the night sky — and see the stars.

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Mike Fazekas is an ecologist who has worked on white bark pine fitness assessments and monitoring of in-restoration riparian areas. Currently, he is researching chipmunk morphology across subspecies and variant habitats.

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