EcoFlight gives students aerial view of national parks
In honor of this year’s National Parks Service centennial anniversary, EcoFlight took to the air for four days in late October for combined flights connecting Aspen to Arches and Canyonlands, to the Grand Canyon and finally to Mesa Verde National Park, not to mention the thousands of miles of landscape in between.
EcoFlight, a nonprofit based out of Aspen, takes annual trips with eight college students in six-seat planes to get an aerial perspective on wildland environmental issues. The organization’s president, Bruce Gordon, took similar flights with John Denver, and they had an idea for a trip starting in Alaska, picking up celebrity-pilots along the way and arriving in Washington, D.C. for Earth Day in 2000.
After Denver passed away, Gordon wanted to pursue their shared dream and founded EcoFlight in 2002. Gordon recognized the need to share the first-hand perspective on threats to the environment with the next generation, and began the annual Flight Across America (FLAA) program. This year, eight college students crammed into small planes for a four-day whirlwind tour touching several of the national parks in the west.
“These students have a voice,” Gordon says, sitting with the students in John Denver Sanctuary in Aspen before takeoff. “I want them to see for themselves, and then tell others.”
The participants arrive from near and far, with backgrounds as different as their colleges. Included in the group is an anthropology major from Texas, a Colorado State University freshman in wildlife and conservation biology and a sustainability studies student at Colorado Mountain College in the Roaring Fork Valley. Each student brings their experiences and knowledge from a variety of study areas.
Emilie Frojen, a senior at Colorado College, is writing her thesis about tribal water rights.
“I know a lot about water rights but I want to extend my knowledge into that of public lands and the intersection,” she said, explaining why she wanted to join the FLAA program, adding that she is interested in the social construction of wilderness.
Seeing the connection
Just after departing from Aspen, the students’ headsets crackle to life as Gordon speaks to the three single-engine Cessna 210 Centurion planes flying in formation. Gordon points out geological features and human impacts to the region. Heading toward Moab, Utah, the flight path takes students over mines and natural gas platforms, as well as the mostly roadless Thompson Divide area, the Colorado National Monument and sprawling rock formations in the wilderness.
“We were flying at about 7,000 feet and you can see how it is all connected from the air,” says Caleb Henderson, from University of Texas.
“You can see an obvious line across the land,” adds Cole Rosenbaum, a master’s student studying geological engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, speaking of the infrastructure that connects well pads to roads and pipelines.
The aerial perspective isn’t everything though, and the program includes ample time spent on the ground in key places discussing the issues with experts representing various perspectives.
“It’s important for the students to experience the parks as well,” according to Jane Parigter, EcoFlight’s vice president. Once on the ground in Moab, the students head to Arches National Park. Sitting beneath the iconic Double Arch they listen to Matt Gross, with Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and discuss the proposal for the Bears Ears National Monument, which if designated would protect 1.9 million acres in southeastern Utah that include ancient cave dwellings and sites sacred to Native Americans
The conversation about policy and land management is followed by a more personal connection to the issues the next morning as the planes touch down in Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border. The students sit down with members of the Navajo Nation and Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, discussing what the land means as more than just wilderness.
“We are trying to preserve the land, but also the songs and the stories,” says Jonah Yellowman, a spiritual adviser from the Many Arrows Bitterwater Clan, as he addresses the students telling tribal creation stories and how the land is connected to him. There have been desecrations of sacred cultural places, he added, and the monument designation would help protect them.
“Is it challenging to communicate with people not from this heritage, working with policy makers while you write the proposal?” asks Frojen, the Colorado College senior studying tribal water rights.
“It is hard to translate why this is sacred,” he admits.
Jordan Curet/Aspen Daily News
This is a theme that is reiterated again that afternoon at Grand Canyon National Park, as locals depict the proposed Escalade development and how it affects their physical and spiritual world. The project would include hotels above the canyon rim and a tram to the Little Colorado River just upstream from its confluence with the Colorado, the place where, according to Navajo tradition, the tribe emerged into the world.
“In Navajo people don’t need to know why something is sacred, it just is. So I am a translator,” says Jason Nex, with Save the Confluence. “I translate from Navajo to English, from science to Navajo.”
Sitting on the edge of the South Rim, one speaker after another presents a variety of stories about the Grand Canyon, from overcrowding and underfunding to diversity and its inclusion in the national parks system.
“EcoFlight takes a very objective approach, presenting us with different information,” says Rosenbaum, from Mines. “At school we are well trained in the technology and the math, but there has been a push to take a more humanitarian approach.”
Mining for impact
“I am here to get you inspired to save the Grand Canyon, and to not want to drink Uranium water,” says Sarah Ponticello, from the Sierra Club. “Sign the petition to really show your support to get this permanently protected.”
Julianne Nikirk, a student at Colorado State University, was surprised to learn that uranium mining is set to commence on the canyon’s doorstep.
“You just kind of assume it is protected,” she says of the Grand Canyon, as they arrive at Canyon Mine, located near the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. The Canyon Mine is not yet operational, but workers have drilled a shaft over 1,400 feet deep and mining could begin for high-grade uranium in six to eight months.
Donn Pillmore, director of operations for Energy Fuels, which operates the mine, offers a counter point, reminding the students that the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of uranium.
“And we import 96 percent, from places that are not operating under the same environmental regulations as we are. Not even close,” he says.
Pointing out that 20 percent of all U.S. power comes from nuclear plants, Pillmore adds that when uranium comes out of the ground it is not considered a hazardous material by the Department of Transportation. Mitigation systems and measures to prevent contamination from reaching water, as well as reclamation efforts after mining finishes in as little as five years, will return the site to how it was before mining began, he says.
From the outside of the fence where Pillmore speaks to the students the site seems meager, but as the planes wing over it on their departure from the Grand Canyon they see the large swath of land it includes. As the planes cross over the Four Corners area and into Colorado the ground below becomes a maze-like network of oil and gas operations, just a few miles from Mesa Verde National Park.
Back on land in Durango, another series of experts discuss threats to the national parks, how different land management strategies affect wilderness and how to diversify park users and activists. One speaker reminds them on their next flight to think about how the landscape looks now, but also how current policy on wilderness areas will shape it in the future.
As the whirlwind tour comes to an end the students talk about how the different stops affected both them personally and the world around them. Each participant will head home with a bevy of information to digest and a plan to share their stories with their peers and others.
The participants’ first opportunity comes on the last day of the trip at Durango High School, where they coalesce three days of discussions, debates, viewpoints and seminars into a slideshow. They implore the high schoolers to care, get involved and vote, once they can.
“We take local people up to look at their local communities, with the idea being to educate and advocate,” Gordon explains to the high schoolers. “We want to inspire people to speak out.”
Lauren Fry, from Colorado State University, is committed to spread the word when she returns to Fort Collins.
“I want to really focus on outreach on campus, and not many know about Bears Ears,” she said. “Through campus radio, the local TV station and our student newspaper, I want to call attention to the issue and guide people to the petition to protect Bears Ears.”
That sentiment sounds good to Pargiter, EcoFlight’s vice president.
“We want to empower them to have a voice and get them to reach out to their peers,” she said. “This is their generation that is going to be doing a lot of the work.”