June 2018 - San Luis

Jul 1, 2018

Captain's Log Starship 1XE, Day 15 in the month June, Earth Calendar year 2018.It was a week of water, smoke and smokescreens in the San Luis Valley.

Many of our flights start with a phone call. Hey Bruce, Denver Post on line 2. EcoFlight here, how can we help?
It turns out that there is going to be a hoopla of state representatives doing a ground tour out of Monte Vista, Colorado looking at water challenges facing the valley, with the ongoing battle of drought vs agriculture vs wildlife vs fire vs resource extraction vs climate change. The Denver Post was joining the tour and since they were in the southwest corner of the state, they were also researching a story on the oil and gas lease sale adjacent to the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
The San Luis Valley is a unique geological phenomenon formed by a huge prehistoric lake and plate tectonics and shifting different soil types. The valley lies between the San Juan Mountains (read Wolf Creek Pass if you are a skier) and the Sangre de Cristos (read Crestone Peak if you are a climber). If you're just an everyday lover of unique landscapes and wildlife, then for you read The Great Sand Dunes National Park and numerous wildlife sanctuaries in the area, which are major flyways for the sandhill Crane and other bird species.
The Denver Post was interested in flying the Dunes looking for information and photos of this new oil and gas lease sale with some parcels only a mile from the park. I agreed to head down there to meet them and do the flight. The thought occurred to me that while the state legislators were congregated in one place studying the water and watershed of the Rio Grande River, they should see this amazing place from the air to add context to their educational efforts.
The only time the legislators could fly was a Sunday evening, which in the flying world is the least ideal time of the day. We lifted off out of our Shangri-la base of Aspen, Colorado around 4pm to blue skies and high winds causing a number of delays for the 'heavy metal' that operate out of Sardy Field, but not for trusty 1XE. It was a bumpy ride but so beautiful as the snow had melted and turned the high country a verdant green. Way too early in the season to see so much green and so little snow but that is what happens when you have only a fraction of your average snowpack, and a hot dry spring. And it was a ride back in time too, from the gentrification of a mountain town back to the epitome of rural Colorado.
As I entered the valley it was obvious that the recent fires from Durango were going to be a problem. The visibility lessened and the air thickened and the smell of smoke was everywhere. Again, too early in the summer to have these big fires and the upper reaches of the Rio Grande watershed appeared to be obscured. However, we successfully completed the flights following the Rio Grande as it meandered from its headwaters out of the mountains, and for the passengers, looking down at the landscape was still magical and
The conversations in the cockpit were illuminating. The Rio Grande is rated by American Rivers as being in poor condition but is given high marks for the collaboration factor: different agencies and farmers working together to address the limited amounts of water, even coming up with groundbreaking ideas of paying landowners to keep some of their fields fallow. The legislators continued their ground tour that week and sent word that they were very grateful for the opportunity to view and understand the big picture. I was also very grateful to climb out of the smoke at 15,000 ft and head back home.
But that wasn't the end of the story. I ended up going back down to the Valley twice more that week. Once to fly the Denver Post and again to fly with Conejos Clean Water and Citizens for Huerfano County who are concerned about impacts to their community and are pushing to the BLM to defer the proposed leases. The hydrology of the area is unique and poses serious potential for harm from any drilling in the formation. Our flights highlighted the importance of water, and the concerns for light and air pollution from the proposed wells.
My personal take away from the week of flights was the stunning scenery and geography of the San Juans and the Sangre de Cristos, the water hydrology of the valley, the incredible beauty of the Sand Dunes themselves and the vulnerable landscapes where the drilling is proposed. My issue is that these recent flights highlight the movement afoot by the administration to limit public comment periods, and to rush through leases and other industrial uses on the landscapes with little if any environmental assessments, analysis and public comment. As I so often say, these are public lands, lands owned by all American...owned by you! We deserve the right to comment.