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Western Slope Skies: Lake City’s Starry Skies

My name is Phillip Virden, and I am an amateur astronomer in Lake City. I came to this beautiful mountain town in 1973. On my first camping trip, I awoke in the middle of the night and went outside my tent. I looked up in the sky and was stunned to see more stars than I had ever seen before. Since I grew up in a large city in Texas, I had never seen the Milky Way galaxy. That first time experience launched me into a passion to learn more about the wonders of the night sky.

Since that time, I have been able to hold stargazing sessions for the public at the Windy Point overlook near Lake City for four decades. Unfortunately, over the years, I saw an increasing glow emitting from towns located on the western slope of the state.

Although Lake City has some light pollution, I realized that with more people moving into our area, I needed to do something to protect our beautiful night skies so that future generations can enjoy what I have been so lucky to experience.

In 2018, I visited the International Dark Sky Association’s office in Tucson, Arizona to see what I could do to assist with preventing light pollution in Colorado and, of course, Lake City. They gave me a wealth of information and, in 2019, we began a process with Lake City’s Lake Fork Valley Conservancy. That process led to our seeking a dark sky designation for the Conservancy’s Earth and Sky park south of Lake City. Together we were able to complete the IDA’s application and, in the fall of 2020, we received the great news that we had been approved as a Dark Sky Park – one of only 250 in the world at that time.

That designation has been an immense help to garner momentum and support from the citizens and visitors to our area. We are now working with the United States Forest Service on a special use permit to operate a light pollution free area near Slumgullion Pass south of Lake City on Highway 149. Additionally, we have worked with the Town of Lake City and Lake City DIRT, which is an organization supporting economic sustainability for Lake City, to raise funds to change the town’s 24 outdoor light fixtures with shields and dark sky friendly bulbs. This will direct light downward rather than up. Those new light fixtures will be installed by Gunnison County Electric this summer.

From June 7-11, we will hold our first ever StarFest to celebrate Lake City’s starry skies and gather other dark sky advocates and interested folks from the western slope, the San Luis Valley, and throughout Colorado to see what more can be done to assure our precious night skies can be enjoyed by future generations. Unfortunately, light pollution is getting worse around the world so taking action is critical to turning things around.

For more information on the Lake City StarFest, please go to lakecitystarfest.com

Thanks everyone for listening and remember, you can help by “turning off your lights to turn on the night”!

Western Slope Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society and KVNF Community Radio. This feature was written by and voiced by Phillip Virden.