National Park ServiceU.S. Department of the Interior
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Chaco Night Sky Program

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 donations.

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 equipment.

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 architecture.

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 Service.

Accomplishments to date:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Discovery Channel.
  5. In 1999, the National Park Foundation presented the park and TAAS with the National Park Partnership Award - Honorable Mention in Education.
  6. John Sefick received the NPS regional Shoulder-to-Shoulder award from the Intermountain Regional Director in 2003.
  7. A building has been constructed to house the computers, scopes and operations of the observatory scopes are directed.

Key success factors:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 reality.

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:

  1. The difficulty of incorporating a major new interpretive program based almost solely on unpaid volunteer staffing and limited funding.
  2. 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.
  3. The difficulty of recruiting, training, and integrating a diverse body of volunteers in a remote park setting.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 to 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_;

Other ____________________________

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

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