EcoFlight is an Aspen-based nonprofit organization that advocates for the protection of wild lands and wildlife by flying people over landscapes located mostly in the American West, to gain a “big picture” perspective of these areas.
From Oct. 11 to 14, eight college students – each of whom wrote an essay that won them a spot on the trip – flew together with EcoFlight in three Cessnas from Colorado to Wyoming to Utah and back to Colorado. Among the students was Amber Parnow, a Colorado Mountain College sustainability studies student from Breckenridge. She is the third student from CMC in Breckenridge in as many years who has won a spot on the annual flight.
In this post-flight essay, Parnow writes about some of her impressions from the flight, and describes how the experience has affected her.
By Amber Parnow
When was the last time you spoke out for something you believed in? And I don’t mean asserted your opinion about how much snow we’ll be getting this year (a lot) or who’s going to the Super Bowl (the Broncos). I mean really stood up and made an honest effort to voice your opinion, or called on your government to act.
With so many voices out there it can be daunting to speak out. “No one will hear me, my voice doesn’t matter, I can’t change anything …” Wrong. When just about everyone thinks this way, the one voice that speaks out is heard and does incite change. With the upcoming elections, now more than ever, is the time to assert your opinion and call on our leaders to honor democracy.
I was deeply impacted by the power and influence of a few voices on a recent airplane adventure. As an avid outdoor enthusiast and diligent sustainability studies major at Colorado Mountain College, I was honored to be rewarded with the incredible experience of joining EcoFlight in their annual Flight Across America program. Their goal is to increase environmental awareness by taking political leaders, students and concerned citizens up in small planes to give them an aerial perspective of the country. They believe that when you are able to see the mountains, rivers and plains from above, it can invoke a broader sense of awareness and appreciation for the land.
As this year coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, I joined a group of students and pilots to fly above proposed wilderness areas in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. Seeing the West from above instilled a greater awe and reverence than I’ve ever before felt. It opened my eyes to the absolutely breathtaking expanse and dynamic landscapes of our beautiful country, and to the damaging, shortsighted destruction caused by resource extraction.
We soared over the rugged snowcapped peaks of the Rockies. Below, Colorado hillsides were ablaze in golden, fiery aspens; placid mountain lakes and meandering, snaking rivers joined to form identifiable watersheds. The sage-covered desert of southern Wyoming stretched out as far the eye could see and the alizarin rocks and spires of Utah’s Canyonlands looked like a Martian planet. These vast expanses struck a primordial chord deep within.
This aerial perspective also revealed the hand of man, omnipresent just about everywhere we flew. Roads crisscrossed and divided nearly every surface. Lights blinked in clusters even in the most remote of places. The most alarming sight was the presence of mining operations that rip out resources and extract fossil fuels. Deep scars cut across the surface. Nothing grew.
In southern Wyoming the land was pockmarked with natural gas pads. They were connected by a network of roads precariously close to water sources. Coal mines were easily identified by the white clouds of “fugitive dusts,” toxic mountains of byproduct steadily blowing with the winds. Holding ponds were also haphazardly strewn around the landscape, their alarming colors ranging from bright turquoise to murky brown, anything but natural, their components anyone’s guess. The same destruction was also seen in the red rock areas of Utah and cleared forests of Colorado. It was offensive, an atrocity that anyone could justify disfiguring the incredible landscape.
After seeing the beauty and majesty of the West juxtaposed so poignantly with the furious destruction of drilling, I was bewildered, confused and frustrated. Very apparent was the aggravation and the fire that fueled so many of the activists we talked to in their battle to conserve these lands. One influential individual, Ed Zahniser, whose father famously drafted the Wilderness Act of 1964, put it into perspective when he told us at one of our meetings in Wyoming: “These are our lands, yours and mine.”
BLM land is public, as are wilderness designations, national parks and forests. What is done with them is our decision and our responsibility. Last time I checked, however, no one asked me if it was all right for oil and gas companies to lease these lands, to extract their precious, nonrenewable resources, take the money and run. While I see these leases handed out, nickels on the dollar, I am watching wilderness and recreation advocates fighting with everything they have, to save just a sliver of these rapidly diminishing wild lands. Why is it so hard to fight to keep this spectacular country just as glorious as it is? Why is destruction the easier, more lucrative path to take? Not to mention the scientific, spiritual, cultural, aesthetic, psychological and intrinsic values offered by wilderness lands.
It is unfortunate that culturally we find it necessary to carve up and own everything we set foot on. Currently we find ourselves in the very real position of deciding how best to manage and delegate these public lands. Though sticky as the term “wilderness” is, there is immeasurable value in setting aside and saving some of our wild lands, not only for ourselves, but for generations to come, for all those without a voice or representation. Time is of the essence. Every day more and more land is chipped away at, polluted and developed.
Though I preach preservation, I am not naive about the realities of energy consumption. I live in a wintery town nestled at 9,600 feet. Winters would be just about unbearable without the luxury of natural gas. I travel, which requires gas, and most assuredly wouldn’t have had this eye-opening experience were it not for the extraction of oil to fuel the planes we flew in. Though I am a proponent of clean, renewable energy sources, I understand the oil addiction our society finds itself in and don’t claim to be exempt.
One of the lasting impressions I have from this trip is the power and necessity of compromise. There are no cut-and-dried answers when dealing with wilderness preservation, recreation designations and mining claims. By identifying commonalities and interests, it is possible to find compromise even when dealing with such polar stances as conservation and extraction. An instructor once told me that an effective compromise is when everyone feels a little bit uncomfortable; everyone gets a little and everyone has to give a little.
I suggest that we try to include all parties in this compromise, including those who don’t have a voice or aren’t yet present to assert it. May we search for that common ground so that we can work together and be productive. The power of democracy is in our hands and our words. United we can be effective in achieving common goals and seeing the democratic process bring them to fruition. As Margaret Mead wisely said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
I encourage you to be one of those citizens. Join me in raising your voice. Let’s be heard and change the world.