Every year, local nonprofit EcoFlight takes to the skies with college students to provide an aerial perspective of issues affecting the environment.
This year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the organization’s Flight Across America program gave students a first-hand look at the history and future of wildlands. The five-day program for eight college students culminated with a presentation of their findings on Tuesday to students from five high schools in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“We want to empower them to have a voice and get them to reach out to their peers,” said Jane Pargiter withEcoFlight. “They are so excited up in the air, and they take home that excitement about the issue and share it with others.”
EcoFlight flies from place to place looking at similar issues in different landscapes. This year, the Flight Across America program flew participants to Jackson, Wyo., and Moab, Utah, as well as the skies across Colorado’s central Rockies.
“We discuss the threats and how different communities are dealing with them,” Pargiter said. “We are really looking at the whole history of wilderness in these three states.”
The college students reminded their audience Tuesday that wilderness is a resource that only shrinks and doesn’t grow.
“You can see how it is all connected from the air,” said Jessie Dunlop, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “You can see the big picture,” added Otter Giltz, also a CU student.
For these students, it’s not just about how the landscape looks now, but also the future effects of current policy on wilderness areas.
“It is a fantastic perspective,” said Sarah Sarfaty, who attends Colorado Mesa University, “not just the view but the physical representation of the bills that are being enacted.”
In order for lands to be protected under the Wilderness Act it takes years of ground work, from inventory to advocacy. Federal legislation will ultimately enact the preservation of an area, but before that can happen the community, stakeholders and others need to be heard.
“Have you ever had to make a compromise?” Dunlop asked the other students, and nearly every hand went up. “These decisions are all about compromise — to satisfy the wilderness as well as all the stakeholders.”
Dunlop explained that in designating an area as wilderness, it limits access, including the banning of motorized recreation. Different areas of interest need to be considered before the decision can be made.
“The process takes a long time for all the opinions to be considered,” Dunlop said. “We met with bikers, ATV riders, ranchers and fishermen to see how they felt about the wilderness designation of an area.”
During talks with local communities, Emily Denham, a student at Fort Lewis College, noticed a common trend.
“There was a united theme against oil and gas being in the wilderness,” she said. “It wasn’t the point of the talks, but it came up every time — that no one wanted to go into the wilderness and find oil drilling.”
“Even those against the wilderness designation agreed,” added fellow Fort Lewis student Phil Carter.
During the Flight Across America experience, the students also met with politicians, conservationists and industry representatives. Amber Parnow, a student at Colorado Mountain College in Summit County, said participants were able to see “how the grassroots movement really took off. It is a really selfless process, [as] all this work is for future generations.”
Giltz talked about meeting with Connie Harvey, an activist for wilderness issues since the 1960s. Harvey reminded them, “Citizens, not politicians, created the Maroon Bells Wilderness.” So now the eight students will take their experience back to their respective colleges and share the unique perspective they gained from the air.
“We saw the importance of taking an active role in the democracy, otherwise it’s not a democracy,” Dunlop said. “It takes education and awareness to get a community behind a project.”
The president of EcoFlight, Bruce Gordon, urged the high school students to write letters to the government and remind their parents to vote. Gordon left them with the parting words, “Your voice will be heard, you can make a difference.”