Captain's Log Starship 1XE, Day 16 in the month of August in the Earth Calendar Year of 2016.
Technology will save us. If we use it properly. I was reminded of this on a recent set of flights in the heart of the Northern Rockies. First stop was Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where my Garmin GPS 496 alerted me to a number of fires in the vicinity. Hard to envisage, as two hours earlier we had departed the lush environs of the Roaring Fork Valley, verdant after a wet and short summer season. The Tetons were veiled in smoke, with active fires on Jackson's perimeters, but it didn't stop us from hosting a gaggle of photographers, activists and press over the Palisades and Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs). These lands are important as they are roadless landscapes with excellent wilderness values. They have become controversial from conflicting resource development concerns. Debates are healthy and essential to educating the public on the value of these lands, and our flights help to inspire discussion and highlight the significance of protection.
The next day found 1XE and I over some of the most extraordinary wild country on the planet, the Absarokas. This mountain range borders the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem and is one of the wildest landscapes I fly over. Perilously steep canyons, rivers cutting into glaciated formations and broad meadows filled with some of the most prolific wildlife populations in the lower 48. The haze from the fires gave it all a surreal look as I navigated with my Garmin and my new aviation 'app' ForeFlight. Passing over Cody, enveloped in smoke, I was able to pinpoint areas that I would be flying in the next few days, but with the marginal conditions I was uncertain if the mission would be possible, as it came down to degrees, minutes, seconds of latitude and longitude, rather than actually being able to see the landscape features.
Heart Mountain, Bighorn Basin
Luckily I had a couple of days to ponder this while engaged in flights out of Sheridan over the Bighorn Mountains. Not nearly as spectacular as the Absarokas, the Bighorns are heavily forested hills and canyons, forming a northwest-trending spur from the Rocky Mountains onto the great plains. The Cloud Peak Wilderness is the roadless centerpiece of the Bighorns but is surrounded by unprotected lands. Mule deer, elk, moose, black bear, and mountain lion are found throughout these wild surrounding areas. The flights included our usual mix of diverse passengers and press, and some young activists from local conservation clubs. One passenger asked what differentiated the unprotected lands we were flying over from the Cloud Peak Wilderness lands, as both were roadless and majestic alpine scenery. My answer, good question! One can only really understand the integrity of wild landscapes from the aerial perspective of an 'ecoflight'.
It was time to head back to Cody and see if I could work my way around the TFRs, the Temporary Flight Restrictions to protect the firefighting airspace, to take a look at some of the Off Road Vehicle (ORV) trails that provide access into this remarkable country. Motorized trail access is an important issue in this eastern slope of the Shoshone National Forest and is a great way to see this terrain. It is, however, imperative to protect the roadless qualities that keep biological corridors intact for wildlife migration, and it is important that the public know that they do indeed have access, and that naysayers know this. Of course the places we wanted to photograph were right up against the TFRs. So there I am, camera in hand, mountains on the left, mountains on the right, ForeFlight guiding me and smoke everywhere. How to get the shots we needed and stay out of the TFRs.
Super Scooper fire-fighting plane
Thanks to my incredible ForeFlight app (did I say yet how much I love this app?!), we were able to get our photos, generate press stories, gain support for protecting the current ORV trails, without expansion, and most importantly let people know that there is indeed public access and accentuate the importance of this incredible wild area.
Back at the airport with one more area left to fly I found out that my super-duper ForeFlight has a hidden place that I can tap to show me the frequencies for the Air Tactical crew organizing the aerial fire-fighting to let them know my whereabouts for the next flight. As the saying goes Better living through Chemistry, whoops... better flying with technology.