Before we start this blog, I must introduce you to a phenomenal nonprofit organization based out of Aspen Colorado called Ecoflight. This organization advocates for the protection of remaining wild lands and wildlife habitat through the use of small aircrafts. They take politicians, students, teachers and anyone else interested in environmental issues up into small Cessna planes to get an incredible perspective on environmental issues. I am informing you of Ecoflight because I myself will embark on one of their trips tomorrow! The trip is called Ecoflight’s Flight Across America Student Program. I along with 3 other College students, (1 CMC Glenwood Student and 2 CU Boulder Students) will spend the next three days learning about environmental impacts on our sacred National Parks caused by coal fired power plants, natural gas drilling and uranium mining. We will doing flybys over Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands National Parks to see first hand how the energy industry is degrading life for all living organisms in the American Southwest. Our job is not only to learn as much as possible, but share this valuable knowledge with the rest of the world. If this interests you, please stay tuned for tomorrow is Day 1 and I will be uploading photos of the entire experience.
While I was driving to Aspen to meet the Eco Flight crew, I couldn’t stop thinking about what the meeting location would be like. I was extremely excited because the map I had with me revealed the meeting spot being remarkably close to the maroon Bells Wilderness. Suddenly, my excited mindset was immediately broken up when got out of Steamboat. Right out of town, I saw the train patiently waiting to deliver it’s coal to the coal plant in Hayden. This train is remarkably iconic to Steamboat however it contributes a lot to polluting the air in the Yampa Valley. Upon seeing the coal carts, I was disgusted. Although I was disgusted, I also got a burst of inspiration to learn as much about coal power as possible so I can educate my community when I returned. I continued on and the train slowly disappeared in my rear view mirror.
When I arrived in Aspen, I was then instructed by the map to follow this pleasant and subtle mountain road that took me a bit out of town. On this road, there was a wonderful golden color in the forests created by the Aspen trees. I continued onto what became a dirt road that switch backed up into the nook of a mountain range. I had arrived. Indeed this place backed up to the Maroon Bells for you could see the humbling Maroon Bells right in the backyard. That’s when it became clear to me. The people who make up Eco Flight truly love and appreciate the wild country. Words cannot describe the beauty of this location.
I proceeded to ring the doorbell and Bruce Gordon, president of Eco Flight welcomed me in with open arms. It was there where I met the other students that I would be joining on this trip. One CMC Glenwood Student Jenna Wirtz, and 2 CU Boulder students Ashley Basta and Xavier Rojas. We also met Jane Pargiter (Vice President), Krysia Carter-Giez (Outreach Director), Jonathan Kloberdanz (Video Journalist), and Chris Council (Reporter for Aspen Daily Times). After the quick acquaintance, we got right to business.
First on the Adgenda was a Skype conference call with staff from the NPCA (National Parks Conservation Association) to get a large landscape overview of the issues in the National parks we would be visiting. David Nimkin (Senior Regional Director of NPCA) answered the phone. He was accompanied by Meghan Trubee (Colorado River Senior Campaign Manager) and Kevin Dahl (Southwest Regional Program Manager). We got right into the action which was chock full of info regarding the issues we would be covering. We talked about the Colorado River and how it supplies river to 9 national parks and 30 million Americans. We talked about there being 395 National Park units in the USA and 74 of them being concentrated in just the four corners region. We talked about impacts of invasive species such as the Tamaris and Pine beetle. We even talked about several important acts, the Organic Act and the Wilderness Act. If any of this interests you more, I have the whole phone call uploaded for your listening pleasure.
After the phone conference, we as a group talked about the itinerary. The next few days would include over flights of Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde and Bryce Canyon National parks. During the flights, we would survey the impacts of coal mines, coal fired power plants, natural gas drilling sites and even uranium mines near these parks. The thought of the Hayden coal plant popped into my head. I was looking forward to seeing more coal plants for I wanted to learn as much about them as possible. It had been a long day of driving and learning for me. I was tired for the next day would start at 6:30 a.m. We as a group called it a day and went to sleep.
Hearing my alarm on Monday morning was the most pleasant wakeup I have ever had. For the first time in a while, I skipped the snooze button and jumped out of bed with enthusiasm. It was still dark outside but my spirit was bright and I was more than ready to indulge myself in an incredible learning experience. Jenna, Xavier, Ashley and I all met downstairs for breakfast. We still hardly knew each other but after conversing over a cup of coffee, I realized we were going to have an excellent group dynamic. We all had very similar ethics on environmental issues and I couldn’t wait learn with them. With that thought in mind, we geared up my Subaru and we made way for the Airport. On our way there, the eternal sunshine permeating on the Aspen valley put all of us in the happiest most enthusiastic state of mind. Never have I ever seen a group of students so excited to engage in a learning experience such as this one. An unforgettable adventure was underway.
Arriving at the airport, we drove our cars right up to the Eco Flight aircrafts. Upon seeing these beautiful machines, I was blown away by their size. They were so small! It then became clear to me as to why we were instructed to pack light for these aircrafts had less cargo space than a two door sedan. We squished our small packs into the tiny trunk of these Cessnas and everybody finagled their way inside the planes. After seating myself and buckling in, we went for the end of the runway. Takeoff was underway. Bruce Gordon (President and Pilot of Eco Flight) flipped the fuel over to lean, confirmed takeoff and punched the throttle. Racing down the runway I could feel the plane battling the eternal force of gravity under my feet. Eventually, the bumpiness of the ride became incredibly smooth and I felt my stomach drop. Everything below me began to get smaller while I heard Bruce mention over the radio, “First stop, Farmington New Mexico!”
As we got out of the Aspen Valley, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Maroon Bells from 12,000 Feet. A place that I have been to many times had a completely different view from a plane. It was so majestic flying through the mountains I was stunned. As we got out of the Maroon Bells, the beauty of the natural world was put on an abrupt hold when I started seeing natural gas rigs below. The destruction they caused to the environment could be clearly be seen and I began to think about Steamboat. I knew Routt County had natural gas rigs but I had no idea how destructive natural gas was to the visual aesthetic of an ecosystem. My mood was slightly tainted by this but as the San Juan Mountain Range rapidly approached, I forgot about natural gas.
As we got out of the San Juans, I saw a dark haze in the distance. We were getting close to Farmington. Out my left window, I saw the hazy and dark skied town of Farmington. Out my right Window, I saw the beautiful pristine and clear skies of the San Juans. As we approached Farmington, I wasn’t looking forward to stepping out into the polluted air. When we landed in the Farmington airport, Mike Eisenfeld (San Juan Citizens Alliance), Robyn Jackson, Sierra Frank -Ignacio and Adella Begaye (Dine Care), Quinn Mentoya (Young Activist) and some Navajo Youth members were eagerly waiting our arrival. We made quick acquaintances and we as the now bigger group all piled into the Cessnas to see the coal plants from up above.
As soon as our plane got in the air, it became immediately apparent as to where the smog was coming from. Out in the distance I saw two coal fired power plants spewing pollution into the air. Down wind was Farmington and all the material coming from the Coal plant was being deposited over in Farmington. As we got closer to the plants, the smog worsened. Vee Newton, a Navajo community member of the Burnham Chapter area pointed out a spot not too far from the coal plant and he said “look, that’s where my grandmother lives.” He didn’t look too delighted and I felt sick to my stomach upon seeing how close his grandmother lived to the plant. I thought about Steamboat and the coal plant that lives just 20 miles out of town. I began to worry for I didn’t want Steamboat to become this polluted. After circling the plants several times, it was time to bail and get out of there. When we landed, we rendezvoused at the airport restaurant to discuss what we had just seen.
While our lunches were being prepared, we engaged in a very emotional conversation about the Farmington coal plants. Vee Newton began to tell us his story and his relationship with the coal plant. Before he could finish, his eyes began to tear and he couldn’t handle it anymore. He apologized and had to leave the room. The room was silent for everybody could feel his pain. Time began to creep up on us and once again we had to continue with the Flight Across America. We said our goodbyes and shortly after we were up in the air again en rout to our next stop, The Grand Canyon.
We pulled into the Valle Airport right outside the Grand Canyon. Immediately after landing, we went to the hotel to check in our things. We were on a tight schedule so we only had a few minutes to relax because at 6:30 we were scheduled to eat dinner with some important people regarding some of the sites we saw and were about to see.
When 6:30 rolled around, Roger Clark (Grand Canyon Trust), Cristina Gonzales-Maddux (Graduate Student, Northern Arizona University), Carletta Tilousi (Havasupai Tribal Council) and Hertha Woody (Navajo Leader) were waiting to greet us. It was a big dinner and we were tired but excited to hear what these remarkable people had to say. Roger Clark talked about the issues surrounding the Grand Canyon area and how some of the uranium mines around the Grand Canyon area. “In 2006, the price of uranium started climbing exponentially. All of a sudden in 2 years, 10,000 uranium claims were placed in the area around the Grand Canyon area.” Cristina Gonzales-Maddux talked about her research as a graduate student in how toxins transport in and out of Uranium mining sites. Hertha Woody spoke about how her Navajo community members are on the verge of destruction due to the uranium mines. The dinner was filled with intellectual conversation and I learned a lot about how uranium is taking over the Grand Canyon region.
After dinner it was time for me to call it a day. Starting in Aspen before the sun came up to then travel all the way to the Grand Canyon when the sun went down was plenty of events for me to handle in one day. My neck raw from my camera strap finally was removed for the first time all day and I was too tired to do anything else. The next day was only hours away.