“Rule number one, don’t touch anything,” said Bruce Gordon, president and chief pilot of EcoFlight, as his first-time passenger jostled a fragile door handle and fumbled with the positioning of his seat. In front of the passenger were two foot paddles and a steering wheel, and as we took off from Sardy Field in Aspen, it was hard not to imagine an elbow or foot absent-mindedly slamming into the steering and plunging our small aircraft into a ravine.
Gordon is a seasoned pilot, however, and for the past 30 years he has safely flown concerned citizens, government leaders and community stakeholders over some of the most cherished landscapes in the country. Beginning as a founding member of Lighthawk, and now EcoFlight, Gordon’s mission has always been to educate people about environmental issues and hopefully inspire them to have a voice in the discussion.
Last Tuesday, Gordon was joined in Glenwood Springs by two of his fellow pilots to take local high school students on a flight above the Thompson Divide and surrounding areas. The tours were part of a program called Flight Across America, in which high school and college-level students learn about environmental issues then get a chance to fly over areas where those issues can be explored from the sky.
Last fall, Aspen High School hosted a seminar which included students from Glenwood Springs High, Roaring Fork High, Colorado Rocky Mountain School and participants from the Buddy Program. Representatives from all groups were in attendance on Tuesday and took turns taking off over the Thompson Divide and landing back on the airstrip in Glenwood.
Jane Pargiter, vice president of EcoFlight, began the day with an outline of things to look out for during the tour.
Tuesday’s flight began with Mount Sopris straight out in front, with a view of proposed wilderness areas at the base. Most of the wildlands on the tour are part of a wilderness bill Colorado Sen. Mark Udall is bringing to Congress.
The tour also included views of the Raggeds and the Maroon Bells, both protected wilderness areas.
Pargiter explained that the Raggeds and Bells include a lot of high wilderness, mostly rock and ice. While there are plenty of recreational opportunities for humans, isolated areas of mountain wilderness can pose problems for wildlife.
“The elk use it for sure and the sheep, but we really need some mid-level terrain that’s well protected, so that there are corridors for migration patterns through all seasons,” Pargiter said, referring to the Thompson Divide area.
Pargiter also emphasized the area’s importance as a water resource as well as a site for ranching. Only through the area’s preservation can ranching continue the way it has, so that the traditional way of life in Thompson Divide can remain, Pargiter said.
As he flew the lead plane, Gordon began discussing the energy issues involved in the Thompson Divide.
“We need oil and gas, but it can and must be done properly, and there are certain places where it can’t be done,” Gordon said.
Gordon went on to say that there are many people throughout the Roaring Fork Valley that think the Thompson Divide should be left as it is and are worried about the problems that could stem from oil and gas exploration. He emphasized that people can’t protect everything, but what they can do is have a core area of wilderness, along with biological corridors, where wildlife can get through and have some protection.
“The Thompson Divide is one of those places,” Gordon said.
The plane then flew over the Roan Plateau, a geologic formation near Rifle, which has been drilled for oil and gas for many years. Gordon said that it’s almost all oil and gas on top of the plateau except for about 55,000 acres that people are trying to protect.
Off to the left of the aircraft, the Thompson Divide ridgeline came into view, which Gordon called a “natural barrier.”
“In about two minutes you’re going to see oil and gas wells everywhere. These wells extend all the way from Rifle to Paonia, and all the way up to Jackson Hole, Wyoming,” Gordon said.
After that, the Hogbacks came into view, a dramatic spine of small mountains — part of the geologic formation that contains oil and gas.
About that time, the oil and gas wells appeared below the planes.
Gordon said that a lot of people bought homes and ranches on the plateau without having ownership of the mineral rights, which were then sold from beneath them. As a result, oil and gas drilling rigs could be seen right next to their houses.
Sometimes the homeowners would have mineral rights and collect a good deal of money from the drilling. Other times, however, if homeowners did not have mineral rights, their property values would plummet while not earning revenue from the nearby drilling.
After continuing past the wells, the Thompson Divide appeared as a carpet of green below. It became obvious that this area served as a natural boundary between the drilling fields and the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
The Thompson Divide remains almost completely roadless, with only a couple roads in view.
“One of the big problems with drilling is the road network. You need a pretty extensive road network for drilling,” Gordon said.
The students were then flown over Thompson Creek, which empties out to an array of large red rock fins with plenty of opportunities for rock climbing and mountain biking.
“It’s almost like Moab up there. You can see what’s at stake,” Gordon said.
Matt Reed/Aspen Daily News
Oil and gas wells near Rifle. The Thompson Divide separates gas wells pictured here from Carbondale and the rest of the Upper Roaring Fork Valley.
While students flew over the Divide in shifts, other groups collected at the Glenwood Springs airstrip to learn about wilderness issues with Will Roush, conservation director of Wilderness Workshop.
Roush explained that there are three strategies to protect the Thompson Divide.
The first is to pass federal legislation saying the area is no longer available for gas leasing. Congress has done that for a number of other landscapes, agreeing with local communities that don’t want drilling, or simply agreeing that the area is too unique to develop. Congress would then pass a bill saying that the area is off the table for gas development.
According to Roush, about half of the Thompson Divide has been leased. The solution for that half is to buy out those leases from the gas company. The Thompson Divide Coalition, a group of ranchers, business leaders and local governments, has offered the gas companies money for their leases. The initial offer was for the amount those gas companies paid for the leases, as well as money paid in rental fees along the way.
Meanwhile people are trying to protect the Thompson Divide until the legislation and/or buyouts occur. That is what is currently happening at Bureau of Land Management (BLM) meetings. The Wilderness Worksop, and like-minded groups such as the Thompson Divide Coalition, are organizing to encourage the BLM cancel or modify some of those leases to protect the area.
That final designation would be called a mineral withdrawal, which allows all other activity except for oil and gas development, Roush said.
Aside from certain energy industry groups, Roush said nearly everyone is supportive of protecting the Thompson Divide in one way or another. The trouble comes when a strict wilderness designation is proposed.
Since the wilderness designation is more protective and doesn’t allow any logging, oil and gas development and motorized or mechanized recreation, some worry about what that might do to places they like to dirtbike or snowmobile.
This has made for a much longer process of refining the proposal, resulting in a steady reduction in proposed wilderness area around the Divide.
“Our organization as well as others throughout the state has worked with mountain bikers and snowmobilers so that instead of the boundary going over a bike trail, the boundary now follows a bike trail,” Roush said.
While some students were getting an education on these issues for the first time, others in the group were already politically active.
Roush recalled an episode last year in which some high school students from Carbondale organized a group, went to the BLM offices in Silt, and delivered several thousand signed letters asking the BLM to protect the Thompson Divide. The effort got coverage in the local newspaper, which got the attention of Congress.
“There are lots of opportunities to get involved,” Roush said.
Paul Roman, a student at Roaring Fork High, went to the EcoFlight seminar last year and wound up being one of the students who spoke to the BLM.
“It really does feel cool to be able to go down there and speak out from where you live. We met with them and spoke with them for quite a while,” Roman said.
The article, published last year by the Post Independent on March 20, features a photo of Lea Linse, a student of Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CRMS).
Years ago, Pargiter was notified that a student who signed up for an EcoFlight program was sick and wouldn’t be able to attend.
“Lea asked if she could come, and as a freshman she was young to come, but she came with us and she found her voice. She asked more questions, and was never embarrassed to ask anything,” Pargiter said.
By the time she was a senior in 2013, Linse started the Thompson Divide Action Club at CRMS to get her fellow students educated about issues surrounding the Thompson Divide.
“You can do this stuff in high school — you don’t have to be older than that to get involved and become active. She was quite inspiring,” Pargiter said.
Brooke Tuveson, experiential programs manager with the Buddy Program at Roaring Fork High, was very proud of her student Miriam Salvitrez who participated in the EcoFlight on Tuesday.
Salvitrez, along with fellow student Alyza Cebayos, was inspired by a presentation by Huts for Vets at last year’s EcoFlight seminar. Huts for Vets is a re-entry and therapeutic healing program for combat veterans, in which veterans walk through the woods to the 10th Mountain Hut system.
Salvitrez and Cebayos made the decision to do some fundraising for Huts for Vets. They met with local writer Paul Andersen, who helps run the program, came up with a fundraising plan, and wound up raising $803 so far, while also accepting a grant from The World We Want foundation for $750.
This is the second year that Robin Colt, environmental science teacher for CRMS, and her students have flown with EcoFlight.
Colt said high school student awareness is gaining momentum, but thinks the need for more awareness is urgent, especially in terms of experiential access to the outdoors.
“We’re in a great location to be able to expose students to what’s in their backyard, and to connect that to an [advanced placement] curriculum, I think it really brings things alive,” Colt said.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, Gordon became slightly concerned about the temperature. The reason for that soon became evident as the hot mountainsides created radiant heat that lifted and dropped the small aircraft over and over again throughout the flight.
After decades in the sky, seasoned mountain pilots might not feel it as much, but for others the effect of this turbulence can result in a bit of nausea.
But for all the complications of flying in the mountains, EcoFlight seems to have it down to a science, and has every intention of inspiring students and community leaders for years to come.