Captain's Log, 1XE, Day 27 of the month of March in the Earth calendar year 2011.
Colorado experienced a record breaking April with enough snow to leave the high country snowpack at 150% above the average, leaving us with only a dismal 3 days of sunshine. Springtime in the Rockies. On this particular day there are red flag warnings on the eastern slope (high wind alerts) and those nasty looking lenticular clouds shading the sun and ripping across the sky like an evil band of umbrellas. Is it springtime this time, or déjà vu all over again?
As we take off, a huge raptor soars past the cockpit and looks us in the eye as it dives out of our airspace, perhaps a harbinger of what is to come and a symbol dear to the people we are going to fly.
Off to the Grand Canyon to meet up with the Havasupai Indians, who have lived in the Grand Canyon for generations. The Havasupai have long been battling uranium mining development that imposes health risks on their communities and is desecrating their sacred sites. Tribal elders were venturing out of their canyon paradise to meet with reporters and activists to experience the aerial perspective of this far reaching and important issue.
We land at the Valle airport just 20 miles south of the rim. This airport used to be the main Grand Canyon airport and now houses vintage aircraft and Grand Canyon flying memorabilia. A must see if you're an aviator.
Our EcoFlight is to take Havasupai elders over their region to show them the uranium mines teetering on the brink of overlooks into the canyons, leaching toxins into their watersheds and to help educate them on the details of current leases and what these pose in terms of threats to their water and sacred lands.
Public lands surrounding Grand Canyon National Park are ground zero for a new uranium mining boom. A spike in uranium ore prices has resulted in thousands of new mining claims, many within ten miles of the Grand Canyon. Though the Obama administration issued a two-year moratorium limiting new mining claims on approximately one million acres of public lands adjacent to the Grand Canyon, the Havasupai are threatened by the re-opening of existing moth-balled mines to which the moratorium does not apply. The antiquated 1872 mining laws and current federal policies favoring private businesses are failing to protect these lands that belong to all Americans and are sacred to the Havasupai. Waters in some of the creeks flowing into the Grand Canyon are permanently polluted and not able to be used for any sort of consumption or agricultural use.
Flying around the Grand Canyon takes a bit of planning as there are only a few air corridors that you can use to fly over at a reasonably low level (below 14,000ft). Due to the amounts of commercial sight-seeing traffic traversing the Canyon, rules were created to maintain the pristine nature of this Wonder of the World. As much as we enjoyed flying in and around the Canyon in the 'good ole days' we testified and helped to advocate for these rules.
It is fascinating to meet the elders and leaders and, as in all my experience flying Native Americans and Native Alaskans, I was moved by their care for the land, their gentle spirit and patient air. The elders handled the turbulent air well and it was indeed a pleasure after the flights to speak with them in a light hearted way and to experience their smiles and gratitude. Their educational adventure paved the way to further their knowledge and to be able to speak with conviction at ongoing hearings in Washington DC.
When I fly people whose spirits are so entwined with the earth, the true guardians of the Grand Canyon, I am constantly reminded why I have chosen to take wing and share the amazing blessings that make up our natural world.