Description: The roots of the Chaco Night Sky Program at Chaco Culture National
Historical Park (NHP) began informally in 1987 when campground host G.B. Cornucopia began presenting astronomy programs
with his telescope to park visitors in the campground. The following year, Cornucopia was hired as a seasonal park ranger
and continued to offer evening campfire astronomy programs which were a favorite with park visitors. In 1994 the park
purchased two telescopes to support his programs and the Albuquerque Astronomical Society (TAAS) requested that the park
host two annual Star Parties for the public.
In 1996, Cornucopia met TAAS member John Sefick who was looking for a site to locate an observatory and felt Chaco
Canyon would be an ideal place.
Sefick relocated to New Mexico in 1997 with a dream of creating an astronomical center that would be used by amateur
astronomers, researchers, and the general public to learn about the universe. He generously donated a modest observatory
dome, two high-powered telescopes, two digital cameras, a computer, and the software that allows astronomers to collect
light from distant objects in space. The park provided a site, infrastructure support, housing for members of TAAS, and
on-going assistance in carrying out the program.
Chaco Culture NHP and TAAS members began the construction of the permanent observatory dome next to the park's visitor
center in March 1998. The dome structure, observatory, and digital imaging center were constructed completely with
Sefick donated a 14" Compustar Celestron telescope; a permanent observatory dome structure; a 25" reflecting
telescope with tracking capabilities; two digital cameras; a computer and two monitors. Total donated costs and in-kind
services by TAAS are estimated at $90,000. Chaco Culture NHP utilized profits from the bookstore operation for
construction materials for the observatory dome and portable building to house digital imaging equipment at a value of
$9,100. Over 2,200 hours of volunteer labor at an estimated cost of $33,000 were donated to construct the observatory
and imaging center. The grand opening was held on May 30, 1998.
During the first year of the Chaco Night Sky Program, 1,500 hours of volunteer time for an estimated value of $18,000
were donated to present six public programs per week. The park purchased a solar telescope in 1999 which allowed the
program to expand into the daytime hours, reach a bigger audience, and provide interpretation of sun spots, solar flares,
and other solar phenomenon that visitors rarely encounter.
Park visitors has been overwhelmingly supportive of the program. Each year, 10% to 15% of all park visitors participate
in the Chaco Night Sky Program. In 2001, a record number of 13,628 visitors participated in the program.
The astronomical facilities are used by amateur astronomers to study phenomena such as super novas, asteroids, and
comets. This is an incentive in recruiting qualified amateur astronomers who normally do not have access to this type of
Visitors have been drawn to the Chaco Canyon not only for the impressive Puebloan architecture and culture, but also
for the archaeoastronomy - the study of the ancient peoples' knowledge and understanding of the sky. The prehistoric
Chacoans relied heavily on astronomical practices as do Puebloan descendants today, and Chaco is one of the best places
in the world to explore those ancient practices in a modern context.
In 1993, Chaco created a list of priorities as part of its general management plan. One priority, the Night Sky
Initiative, designates Chaco's night sky as a natural resource to be protected from encroaching light pollution. The
park re-designed its own night lighting systems by employing shielding to direct light downward, and in some cases, motion
sensors so light is produced only when needed.
The night skies of Chaco Canyon are recognized as a critical natural resource that needs to be preserved and protected
from light and other forms of pollution caused by urban growth and sprawl. The Chaco Night Sky Program and the partnership
with TAAS helped to develop a park program that continues to inform visitors of the importance of dark skies in the modern
world, and insures that the skies seen by the ancient Chaco people will remain the same as those seen by present and future
generations of visitors to Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Chaco Culture NHP was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 for its extraordinary prehistoric archaeology and
Geographic area covered: Chaco Culture National Historical Park consists of 33,960 acres containing
Chacoan cultural sites which are part of the sacred homeland of the Pueblo Indian peoples of New Mexico, the Hopi Indians
of Arizona, and the Navajo Indians of the Southwest.
The Chaco Night Sky Program provides programs to park visitors from the Four Corners area of the Southwest, as well as
national and international visitors.
List partners and relationships: Members of The Albuquerque Astronomical Society and the National Park
Accomplishments to date:
- Since the program's inception, over 75,000 people attended 1,918 public programs at the park and many more utilized
the program via the internet.
- Chaco Culture NHP and TAAS members constructed the only permanent observatory at an NPS site west of the
Appalachian Mountains. This facility and the imaging data offer a unique foundation for substantial scientific
research. Current research and activities include asteroid, comet, and super-nova searches, educational outreach,
(through visitor's and school's participation), and an opportunity to educate the public and further the cause of
preserving the dwindling quality of dark skies.
- A database of over 1,500 high quality images of celestial objects has been gathered and stored, and are available
for viewing and interpretation. These images will be archived with the Chaco Culture NHP Museum Collection for present
and future research.
- Media coverage in southwestern periodicals such as the Denver Post, Farmington Daily Times, and the Interior
Department's People, Land, and Water has been extensive. The project also received television coverage on the the
- In 1999, the National Park Foundation presented the park and TAAS with the National Park Partnership Award -
Honorable Mention in Education.
- John Sefick received the NPS regional Shoulder-to-Shoulder award from the Intermountain Regional Director in
- A building has been constructed to house the computers, scopes and operations of the observatory scopes are
Key success factors:
- The enthusiasm and leadership of Park Guide G.B. Cornucopia provided the vision to create the Chaco Night Sky
Program. He initiated and carried out the initial partnership with TAAS and rapidly gained their interest, trust, and
support. When TAAS member John Sefick began looking for a observatory site, he approached the organization and the
park about using the Chaco site. With the support of TAAS and the park, G.B. Cornucopia oversaw the planning and
construction of the observatory. This included site selection, site preparation, archaeological and natural resource
clearance, and construction. He coordinated the volunteer efforts of dozens of TAAS members to construct and refine
the technical workings of the dome structure and planned the observatory dedication/star party. He continues to expand
and develop the Chaco Night Sky Program making it world-class and a visitor favorite.
- The vision of TAAS member John Sefick to create an astronomical center in a protected national park setting. His
generous donation of equipment allows astronomers to collect light from distant objects in space made this vision a
Frustrations: The park accepted the donation of equipment and began to develop, oversee, and manage the
Chaco Night Sky Program without convening a meeting of representatives from all parties to set down ground rules and
responsibilities, and formalize the partnership with a memorandum of agreement. This will be remedied by the NPS drafting
a scope of work type document.
The new program also created a new NPS workload, requiring concerted time and effort to lead well. Those functions
were juggled between the Chief of Interpretation and a Park Guide. Because these employees had duties associated with the
park's primary interpretive functions of interpreting the Chacoan sites, they did not have the time to provide training
and guidance to the volunteers who came to the park for several week periods. As a result, the volunteers who did not
always realize they were "speaking for the NPS" and needed to incorporate NPS messages into their programs. It resulted
in a few volunteers providing visitors with strong personal opinions that did not reflect a positive NPS image. The
volunteers tended to form an image of themselves as the "astronomy staff" and not part of the staff or NPS culture at
Chaco Culture NHP.
The program relies almost entirely on unpaid volunteers to provide the programs. The park is located in a remote area,
and recruiting enough qualified and interested volunteers to come to the park for a month or more is difficult. The
volunteers must quickly learn a tremendous amount of information about the park, the Chacoan cultural history, the Night
Sky Program and the astronomy equipment. The commitment of the volunteers is variable and inconsistent.
In order to have the volunteers scheduled throughout the season (April-October) recruiting for the program is required
to take place throughout the winter months (Nov-March) when the program is not operating. The park relies on an unpaid
volunteer to coordinate the recruitment of volunteers, and the coordinator changes from year to year. An ideal solution
would be to find a funding source to offer a stipend to the coordinator.
The lack of available housing further restricts volunteer recruitment to astronomy-oriented volunteers with campers
or RVs. The volunteers must be integrated into other aspects of park operations since the program currently presents
programs on 3 nights per week. It is sometimes difficult to match volunteers skills and interests with the needs of the
park, which asks volunteers to contribute 32 hours/week of volunteer service in trade for housing.
With no funding from Operations of the National Park Service or funded projects, the park has had to rely on
contributions from cooperating associations, grants, and individuals. There was no consistency of funding from year
to year. Unexpected costs of maintaining, repairing, and replacing high-tech equipment cuts into the operating budget
of the interpretive operation and requires the use of cooperating association donation funds that would normally go to
assisting with the park's primary interpretive theme of interpreting Chacoan culture.
On several occasions volunteers expressed their frustrations with working within the policies and mandates of a
government agency which they felt moved too slowly in its actions was too restrictive in its policies. This resulted in
volunteers leaving the program in frustration. This was also due to the park providing false expectations that volunteers'
role in the program was going to focus strictly on astronomy and not other aspects of the park operations. A job
description and scope of work is now provided to volunteers to remedy this.
Although the partnership with the dedicated and enthusiastic members of TAAS helped to create the Chaco Night Sky
Program and construct the facilities, the involvement of the organization itself in the partnership has all but
disappeared. Today, only a few members of the organization are involved independently and active in the program.
Most important lessons learned to date:
- The difficulty of incorporating a major new interpretive program based almost solely on unpaid volunteer
staffing and limited funding.
- The many unexpected costs of maintaining, repairing, and replacing high tech astronomy equipment and the need
to develop funding sources to deal with these costs. Being primarily a nighttime program, means the NPS employees and
VIPs involved are not available for visitors/work during the bulk of the day-time, when most visit the park.
- The difficulty of recruiting, training, and integrating a diverse body of volunteers in a remote park setting.
- The partner needs to fully understand the policies, mandates, philosophy, and constraints of working with the
National Park Service. The park and partner should have a clear understanding of the goals of the partnership from
the outset and set down all goals and responsibilities in a written memorandum.
- The need to create a strong bridge between the park organization and the volunteers to assure that volunteers are
integrated into the park and its missions, and that the volunteer efforts enhance the park programs.
What would you do differently next time: Develop a written agreement with the partner outlining
expectations and responsibilities of both parties from the outset. It would be ideal to have even a part-time or
STF position to oversee this interpretive program or a better-compensated volunteer coordinator. This coordinator would
be able to present clear expectations, guidance, and training to volunteers and provide quality and consistency from year
Suggested resource materials(related to the case study):
An overview of the Chaco Night Sky Program:
An image gallery of photos taken at the park facilities:
A link to a web site developed by NASA, UC Berkeley, the park, and other organizations that was inspired in part
by the Chaco Night Sky Program:
For more information:
Name: G.B. Cornucopia
Affiliation: Park Guide, Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Phone/Fax: 505-786-7014 ext. 221
Name: Russ Bodnar
Affiliation: Chief of Interpretation, Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Phone/Fax: 505-786-7014 ext. 240
Name: John Sefick
Affiliation: Member, The Albuquerque Astronomical Society
Phone/Fax: 505-275-1447; TAAS number 505-296-0549
Partnership category(ies) (check all that apply)
Fundraising _X_; Capital Improvements _X_; Facility Management _X_; Trails _X_; Design _X_; Program Delivery _X_;
Visitor Services _X_; Tenant Organizations __; Concessioners __; Natural Resources Management/Restoration _X_;
Cultural Resources _X_; Education/Interpretation _X_; Arts __; Information Services _X_; Transportation __;
Mutual Aid __; Fire Management __; Planning _X_; Tourism __; Community Relations _X_;
Prepared by: G.B. Cornucopia, Park Guide, Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Russ Bodnar, Chief of Interpretation, Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Date posted: 1/24/05
Phone: G.B. Cornucopia at 505-786-7014, ext. 221 and Russ Bodnar at 505-786-7014 ext. 240