Our Public Lands: A monthly column for
The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel
© Andrew Gulliford
Recently I caught a ride with the Environmental Air Force. Or at least that’s what Co-founder Bruce Gordon called Aspen-based EcoFlight as we taxied to the runway at the Durango Airport. Eco-flight takes into the air interested citizens concerned about local environmental issues who want a bird’s eye view of what’s on the ground. With their small contingent of volunteer pilots and planes, EcoFlight highlights conservation from the skies in new and innovative ways.
EcoFlight has flown folks over prairie potholes in North Dakota, the North Fork of the Flathead River in Montana, and over landscapes being considered for wilderness protection in this year, the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act. As I squirmed into a small seat in the six-passenger plane, I had pilot Bruce Gordon in front on my left and Jeff Widen of The Wilderness Society ahead of me. We took off into a bluebird blue Colorado sky. Widen narrated the history of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act in a key drainage of the San Juan National Forest, set aside by my hero Republican President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905.
I’ve hiked the Hermosa drainage, camped along the creek, hunted for dusky grouse in steep spruce, and walked sections of both the Hermosa Trail and the Colorado Trail. It’s magnificent country and quintessential Colorado with only a few forest roads and mountain bike trails. TR would love it. But he would not be amused by the political posturing going on today over this vast unblemished watershed.
I’ve photographed the stream improvements and boulders set in place to make better habitat for endangered Colorado cutthroat trout. I’ve marveled at the work done by the U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited, and a host of volunteers and partners. As we flew north up the Animas River Valley and then pivoted west into the Hermosa drainage we saw below us Durango Mountain Resort ski area and then nothing but acres of golden yellow quakies and dark spruce slopes.
To hike the Hermosa is one thing but to see it from the air is to understand the potential for one of the last large roadless areas in the state. Over the decades since 1964 the Forest Service has recommended protections and a few years back a valuable 160 acre parcel was acquired as public land. Under the bill introduced and supported by Congressman Scott Tipton the 108,000 acre parcel with 38,000 wilderness acres will have no new roads and will become a Special Management Area. Since 2008 over 70 stakeholder groups have been working on this proposal.
“They wanted it to stay like it is into the future. Recommendations are to make permanent what currently exists,” stated Widen over the plane’s intercom. We had two planes in the air and by being on the same channel Jeff could speak to all participants because we wore headsets. His commentary helped to explain the possibilities and the issues. EcoFlight gave us the above ground perspective and Widen said, “It truly was a collaborative process, a watershed proposal, everyone gave a little and got a little. The entire proposal is a compromise.”
As Graysill Mountain loomed up on the proposal’s northern boundary, I thought of
seeing the peak from the Bolam Pass Road as my son and I drove up to the intersection of the Colorado Trail in August. We camped at Celebration Lake and day-hiked the Colorado Trail in both directions. Now I was high above it in a plane at 11,000 feet and as pilot Gordon turned the Cessna to the south, that magnificent terrain fell away below me and I thought of the other Colorado wilderness areas and all the citizens who had worked for legislative protection.
Gordon spoke into the intercom, “Why isn’t this a slam dunk?” Widen had to discuss Congressional gridlock. He talked about political ideologies ignoring citizen participation and the local consensus that politicians require to move a bill forward. We landed and the pilot shared his personal philosophy.
“Of course we need oil and gas drilling, but there are also special places that should be protected,” stated Gordon. The Hermosa drainage is one of those special places, but sadly Mark Twain had it right. Twain quipped that you don’t want to see how sausages and laws are made. In this case, there are thousands of baffled Congressional constituents who can’t comprehend why a bill hammered out with such consensus would be altered in a congressional sub-committee. The version that passed the House has key changes not conservation-oriented. “The changes could be a deal breaker for The Wilderness Society,” opined Widen. Conservation Colorado is also in shock over substitute language.
“You know it’s a beautiful valley but when you see it from the air it’s so much more dramatic,” stated Dan Olson, Executive Director for the San Juan Citizens Alliance which has supported this collaboration from the start. After the planes landed, folks met at an airport conference room for a de-briefing. Another set of interested citizens, Navajo high school students, got ready for their trip as part of Flight Across America, which is EcoFlight’s annual student education program.
“Back country areas and healthy, clean rivers make our outdoors sports possible. The Hermosa drainage is vitally important to us for the native cutthroat population,” added Ty Churchwell representing the “Sportsmen for Hermosa” coalition led by Trout Unlimited and representing 60 conservation groups, fly fishing shops, and hunting/fishing outfitters. “Wilderness protection takes years and years. Now this carefully crafted legislation is being threatened. What politicians say they want is what this process has been,” explained Olson. He concluded, “This is a real test of democracy.”
Questions remain. Why did Republican Congressman Scott Tipton ignore the wishes and hard fought compromises of his district members? Was he bullied into making changes by other Republican members of the House Committee? Will the Senate restore original Hermosa Bill language and work out an acceptable bill with the House?
It’s all so simple from the air. A beautiful, unspoiled watershed with a mix of aspen, spruce, and fir at higher elevations and scrub oak and pinyon juniper lower down guarantees the right habitat for everything from big game to eagles, redtail hawks, and endangered fish.
EcoFlight, the West’s own Environmental Air Force, will keep showing us what we need to protect. If only the politicians will listen to their constituents.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at email@example.com