For the past five years Pete McBride, who is an EcoFlight Board Member and National Geographic photographer, and more interestingly, a former grade school student of EcoFlight president Bruce Gordon, has been calling attention to the mighty Colorado, America’s most endangered river. He paddled and photographed the whole length of the river (see his book The Colorado River, Flowing Through Conflict), and has since then used his photos and award-winning video as a call to action on behalf of the River Red. EcoFlight joined Pete in late March to document the river delta coming back to life.
For 6 million years, the Colorado River flowed from high in the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Sea of Cortez. But since 1960 it has not regularly flowed to the delta, drying up before it reaches its final destination. After the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1936, and the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, water rarely makes it past the Morales Dam, the last diversion on the river. Every last drop has been allocated and diverted away. The delta was once a thriving ecosystem covering two million acres, a wetland teeming with wildlife, supporting an economy based on tourism, hunting, sport and commercial fishing, one of the world’s most productive fisheries. All that dried up along with the overburdened and overworked river – now the lifeline for over 30 million people in seven states and two countries.
But now, thanks to a recent agreement between the US and Mexico, the last 70 miles of the Colorado River are getting a gush of water, or “pulse flow” in an effort to revive the dried up delta. This is the first time in history that water has been sent to the delta in the name of conservation. The 8-week surge of water is meant to mimic a natural flood, and bring life back to the parched ecosystem. Scientists will continue to monitor the flow’s impacts on salinity, seed dispersal, vegetation growth, and fish and wildlife habitat.
The agreement, known as Minute 319, allows Mexico to store water in Lake Mead and calls on both countries to share the benefits of water surpluses and the burdens of water shortages, and to cooperate on restoration of the river’s ecosystems. EcoFlight joined in the excitement and celebration of this historic event at the delta, attending a ceremony at the dam with dignitaries from Mexico and the US, and providing flights for National Geographic and PBS to document the flow.
There is what we call Big “W” and then there is what we call little “w”. Both have to do with wilderness. As we enter our 50th year of having had the foresight to create a Wilderness Act with a big “W”, we are looking at remaining landscapes altered by climate change, resource extraction, a burgeoning population, and a political climate that no longer supports the preservation of large intact wilderness quality lands a Wilderness.
This, in my opinion is a mistake. We only have to get onboard an EcoFlight to see how fragile our planet is becoming. A 30-minute flight in any direction from my hometown in the mountains of Colorado is greeted by roads, drilling rigs, and the presence of man in every direction.
With so much stress on natural systems from climate change, it is vital that we protect these last remaining wild places with the big “W”, and use the little “w” classifications of land to act as buffer zones.
As you can read in the cover story, the mighty Colorado has reached the Sea of Cortez for almost the first time since the 1960s, only by a landmark agreement between the United States and Mexico, and only by the collaboration and planning of forward thinkers. It is this kind of proactive thinking that we need in the face of climate change. As rivers dry up, forests shrink, and greenhouse gasses fill the atmosphere, we need the foresight to protect our wild places like our lives depend on them. They probably do. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of big “W” Wilderness, we are grateful that we, as a nation, have these wild places. In addition to getting out and enjoying them, we need to strive to ensure that our next generations will have the ability to enjoy similar experiences.
Prairie Potholes in North Dakota Jane Pargiter, EcoFlight 2013
The Prairie Pothole region is responsible for half the waterfowl production in the United States. It is an incredible landscape. Flares going off in the North from oil and gas, rich farmlands to the west and water everywhere. EcoFlight was over this lush green glacially-scoured landscape in North Dakota at the request of Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) who were holding meetings with Ducks Unlimited. The glacial scouring 10,000 years ago left behind shallow depressions, which have since filled with water, rich plant and aquatic life, a veritable heaven and haven for waterfowl.
This crucial habitat is threatened, as wetlands are being drained for agricultural development, and the Bakken oil boom goes unchecked. We are working with TRCP, Ducks Unlimited, National Wildlife Federation and other partners to protect our nation’s wetlands. The life-cycles of every duck, goose and swan are dependent on wetlands, and wetlands also provide an indispensable part of sporting traditions in the USA.
The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers have proposed a landmark rule to clarify protection under the Clean Water Act for streams and wetlands that form the foundation of our nation’s water resources. This rule relies on the best scientific understanding of stream and wetland science, and is important for our birds, fish and wildlife, our communities and our economy.
Grassland Conservation Areas have been proposed which will help keep areas protected from more detrimental agricultural development and from contamination from encroaching drilling. It is important for our mallards, northern pintails, blue-winged teal, gadwall and ruddy ducks to be able to be able to keep nesting in North Dakota, so that we all get to see them in our home states as they migrate and move, to lands as far afield as western California, southern Texas, and even the Atlantic shoreline.
North Fork of the Flathead, Montana Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight 2014
If you want to go somewhere really wild, where would you go? We might choose the North Fork of the Flathead, a landscape where there are more animals than people. The North Fork, which many consider to be the jewel of the Crown of the Continent, originates in British Columbia, and flows into Montana. The Flathead River valley drains all the major mountain ranges in the Crown of the Continent. This wild country is a key refuge and important wildlife corridor for core species that have become threatened or endangered elsewhere, including grizzly bears, gray wolves, wolverines, Canada lynx, and bighorn sheep, and native fish species. It is where the most vibrant biodiversity is located in the lower 48 and in Canada, and one of the few naturally functioning ecosystems left in North America.
EcoFlight teamed up with Headwaters Montana and Flathead Wild to collect imagery of the wilderness core of the Whitefish Range, which lies immediately to the west of Glacier National Park. The range runs from Whitefish, Montana, up to the international border with Canada. The name of the range changes at the border to the McDonald Range. A lot of other things change at the border as well, such as timber harvest. In British Columbia, the Great Recession led to a decrease in the annual harvest of trees from public lands in the province for several years. However, with the modest economic recovery, the cut has greatly accelerated. Our mission was to get an aerial view and photo documentation of on-going and proposed clear cutting – the way it’s still done over too much of B.C.
We also collected imagery of the roadless lands on the U.S. side of the border. Our partners are campaigning for a cohesive management plan for this 400,000 acres of national forest, including designation of about 100,000 acres as congressionally designated wilderness. Roadless lands in the Whitefish Range provide some of the best grizzly habitat in the Lower 48. The U.S. Forest Service management has led to the closing of many roads in and around these roadless lands, resulting in greater habitat security for bears.
One of the greatest successes recently is the introduction in both houses of Congress of the “North Fork Watershed Protection Act”, legislation that would ban mining and energy development on national forest land in the Whitefish Range. Hopefully, EcoFlight’s work with our partners will help promote the timely conclusion of this legislation.
It is critical that wildlife corridors at a variety of elevations be managed and protected in a way that helps improve climate change resiliency, as it will allow species to move to suitable habitats as the region warms, and at the same time conserve the ecological health of this incredibly diverse landscape.
Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado Jane Pargiter, EcoFlight 2013
Ever since Europeans first stepped foot in North America, with the mindset of “manifest destiny” we have been set on conquering the wild. Forests cut down, grasslands plowed over, and mountain tops removed, all in the name of civilization and success. The wild continues to dwindle, and today protected wilderness has been reduced to an area roughly equal to all the paved surfaces in the lower 48.
This year, EcoFlight and our partners plan on being wild, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. We will celebrate our wilderness lands with overflights, with young adults and students of all ages, and we will aspire to be like those visionaries who sought to restrain ourselves as a society, from manipulating and dominating every last landscape in the country. On September 3rd, 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, which set aside 1.9 million acres as protected wilderness, and gave us the tools and framework to inventory and designate wild places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. Over the last 50 years, Congress has added over 100 million acres of wildlands to the National Wilderness Preservation System in recognition of their ecological, scientific, cultural, economic and spiritual values.
But it has not been easy. Getting lands protected under the Wilderness Act takes years of ground work, from inventory to advocacy. This year we celebrate the hard work and dedicated citizens who have worked tirelessly to protect in perpetuity places throughout the West like the Maroon Bells, the Bob Marshall and the Teton Wilderness areas. EcoFlight has provided the aerial perspective of roadless areas and wildlands to support campaigns, and help legislation get introduced to protect places like the San Juans, Hermosa Creek, and the Central Mountains in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, and the Columbine-Hondo in New Mexico. As we celebrate 50 years of Wilderness in America, EcoFlight will continue to advocate for the protection of the last remaining wilderness quality landscapes in the country.
An iconic figure in rural Thompson Divide, cattleman Bill Fales is instantly recognizable in his dented cowboy hat. Fales knows the importance of a clean and healthy ecosystem as a source for clean water, and summer grazing for cattle. Fales and his wife Marj have been ranching in the Thompson Divide for over 40 years. They sell their meat to places like Whole Foods, where customers want meat that comes from a clean and healthy place. Fales: “We like to live and raise cattle in a healthy environment. We want to see the water quality and quantity undiminished.”
But clean water in the Thompson Divide is threatened by illegal oil and gas leases in the area. The local community is pushing the BLM to void the deficient leases, and is working with elected officials to permanently protect the area from future development. “Protecting the Thompson Divide is a community effort, and the community supports our leaders like Senators Bennet and Udall in their work on this issue”, said Fales about an EcoFlight he took over the area with Senator Mark Udall, “It’s nice to fly with a good pilot like Bruce, normally I don’t like to get on too tall of a horse, but looking down vertically on the land versus horizontal, gives you a good perspective on what the impacts could be”.