In honor of the National Park Service’s centennial year, EcoFlight, a nonprofit that advocates for the protection of wild lands and wildlife habitat, made public lands the focus of its Flight Across America student program. And Moab was an important stop.
The program, which ran Oct. 24-28, combined flights over public lands with education, as experts provided the students with a variety of perspectives on stewardship. Eight students, age 18 to 29, studied Arches and Canyonlands, the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde national parks and Chaco Culture National Historical Park, as well as the Colorado National Monument and the proposed Greater Grand Canyon Heritage and Bears Ears national monuments.
“We take them on this whirlwind tour for four or five days, and they meet with all the people we work with throughout the year, people from SUWA [Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance] and all those types of things. They educate these guys about [the issues],” said Bruce Gordon, founder and president of EcoFlight.
The students fly in six-seat, single-engine Cessna 210 Centurion planes flown by veteran pilots who point out landscape features and human impacts to the region.
“It’s a great way to see that beauty that you don’t normally get to see on the ground, but on the other hand, it’s much more heartbreaking and upsetting because you can see the full impact of our activities on the landscape,” said Elizabeth Langford, a senior at Colorado Mountain College.
Participation in EcoFlight is free to the students, who were selected from more than 50 applicants based on essays submitted as part of their applications. At the end of the program, students present a seminar on their experience for high school students and publish articles, letters to the editor, videos or other forms of media in local, regional and national outlets.
For many of the students, understanding the issues surrounding public lands ties into their goals for the future. Cole Rosenbaum, a master’s student studying geological engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, described what he hoped to gain from the program.
“At School of Mines we have a ton of technical training ... We can build a well, or we can build a bridge,” said Rosenbaum. “But I think what this program is going to add a really strong perspective on is should we do that. As somebody who is going to be putting a stamp on engineering plans, I want to be able to do that with confidence or have the guts to say no.”
In the program, students met with the Inter-Tribal Coalition to learn about the proposed Bears Ears National Monument and heard from activist Sarah Stock about the impacts of tar sands mining on Utah public lands. They broadly discussed threats to the national parks, pros and cons of different land management strategies and engaging with a racial and socio-economically diverse group of park users and advocates.
Gordon said he used to fly conservation flights with his friend, the musician John Denver. After Denver died in 1997, Gordon decided to start an organization in his memory that was dedicated to conservation flight. Gordon founded EcoFlight in 2002.
When it is not running its yearly Flight Across America student program, EcoFlight takes members of the conservation community, youth, media, elected officials and industry representatives on free flights over areas that are considered by environmental groups to be threatened or in need of protection, according to the organization’s website.
“We try to get a good diversity of passengers in the mix so we can get all these people in the airplane squished up next to each other, talking about the issues and seeing the landscape from the same perspective,” said EcoFlight Program Director Michael Gorman.
EcoFlight flies to support a variety of campaigns and conservation groups throughout the West, said Gorman. Regional partners include SUWA, the Grand Canyon Trust, the Canyonlands Watershed Council and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
“The landscape doesn’t lie,” said EcoFlight vice president Jane Pargiter. “You can put different people in and they get the same pictures. So it’s a very empowering platform for students, politicians and the press to learn about these issues.”