August 3, 2010

Listening Session

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar speaking at the America's Great Outdoors listening session in Salt Lake City.

Today I participated in a local listening session dealing with the "America's Great Outdoors Initiative" proposed by president Obama. The initiative is meant to enhance all people's ability to venture into and enjoy the outdoors, and senior members of the Obama Administration have been touring the country listening to local ideas for how the initiative's goals might be accomplished.

When I heard there was to be a listening session in Salt Lake I got a wild hair in my brain and immediately signed up as a representative of SLAS to promote the protection of our nation's quickly-disappearing dark skies. I felt that the mission and activities of our astronomy club fit perfectly with the goals stated in the president's proposal, and in online forums I didn't see a single other person who was advocating for dark skies...I guess you could call the natural skyscape our great forgotten wilderness!

I talked with other SLAS members, met with our club president Dave Bernson, and wrote an essay outlining my ideas. I had no idea what the format of the listening session might be, but I practiced my talking points and hoped I'd have maybe 5 minutes or so to present my ideas.

This morning Dave and I showed up at the downtown Radisson, registered and found a seat in the crowded meeting hall. Governor Gary Herbert, SLC Mayor Ralph Becker, one lady I can't remember (I'll try to add her name later) and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar were seated on the stand and each gave short speeches before inviting members of the audience to step up to one of three microphones at the front of the room to ask questions of Secretary Salazar. After a couple minutes of nervous hesitation, I stepped into the lineup of questioners and tried to figure out what I'd say. Dave had come up with a very nicely worded question...something like, "Do the American People realize the value to scientific and environmental education provided by easy access to a dark sky?" I decided to use it as my point of departure and add a couple thoughts on my own that would draw attention to the ability of astronomy programs to draw people, and especially youth, into the great outdoors.

I was a tad nervous at the mic and would give myself perhaps a B- for the final minute-long result, but I was still glad to have been proactive and that my thoughts were heard.

After the general session, we all split off into several small groups meant to give more people a chance at in-depth comment. Dave and I both got to contribute more during this session, though it occasionally seemed a bit awkward to steer the conversation to efficient street lighting when everyone else in the room seemed to want to focus on "YES ATVs!" or "NO ATVs!" Well, I'm simplifying a bit. It was very interesting to hear a civil discussion about wilderness issues in a setting where all ideas were given their fair due. Each time someone was speaking the rest of the participants were silent--even when it was clear that some people's opinions were in stark oposition to others.

Dave and I both felt the session was worthwhile and informative even though we were oddballs in the group. Even on the main webpage devoted to the America's Great Outdoors Initiative, I am so far the ONLY one who has posted an idea relating to dark sky preservation. I posted my entire essay here: AGO homepage (and if you like what I stand for in the essay, give me a positive vote!). As I write this, my essay is still on the front page of "most recent" submissions, but if it's since moved down the list, you can search "Kelly Ricks" at the top right of the page...or you can just try searching "Kelly Ricks and America's Great Outdoors" on Google and my posting should show up.

Anyway...I am still a little buzzed by the whole experience...and I heard from Dave that another club member heard my question broadcast on KUER! I haven't found a recording of that yet...maybe it will be up on their site tomorrow. Yikes! It has been an interesting day to say the least!

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