By Megan Kehoe
/ The Bulletin
This October, college student Skyler Nelson spent an entire week staring out the window.
But Nelson wasn't just another college student sitting in a classroom and spacing out during a lecture. Nelson was staring out the window of a small aircraft, gazing at the rich landscape of the American Southwest below her.
"Before you fly over it, you don't realize how massive those wildernesses are," Nelson, 21, said. "You don't understand how little you really are until you're up there."
Nelson, a 2009 Bend High School graduate, is now a senior majoring in environmental science at Colorado Mesa University. Recently, she was selected to participate in Flight Across America 2012, a scholarship program offered by EcoFlight, an organization based in Aspen, Colo., that works to protect wild lands and educate students on environmental issues.
This year's program centered on water conservation and pollution concerns in the Upper Colorado River Basin, and allowed students to see the impact of those practices from an aerial perspective.
Along with six other students from Colorado colleges, Nelson spent about three hours a day in a small aircraft over the varied landscape of the Southwest.
There were several legs to the trip, with students traveling from Aspen to Grand Junction in Colorado, from Farmington, N.M., to Page, Ariz.; from Page to Craig, Colo.; and then from Craig back to Aspen. Nelson observed winding canyons, immense forests and vast deserts during the journey.
"Everything looks a lot different when you're 10,000 feet up in the air than when you're on a commercial flight," Nelson said.
Jane Pargiter, the vice president of EcoFlight, said the organization is in its ninth year of the Flight Across America program. She said the idea behind the program is to allow students to view the land and environmental issues from different perspectives.
"We want to empower students to find their voice about an issue and to not be apathetic," Pargiter said. "We try to allow the land to speak for itself."
Nelson said she was initially stunned by the beauty of the landscape, but that it wasn't too long before she became concerned with some of what she saw.
"We were flying over Canyonlands National Park, and it was just this gorgeous area," she said. "Then after not too long, we saw a bunch of these fertilizer ponds that are just so unnatural-looking in the landscape.
They're all geometrical and bright blues and greens, and not even close to the natural colors of the landscape."
Nelson said seeing how close these man-made, polluted ponds were to the national park made her feel uncomfortable. She said all across the Southwest, potash ponds and oil and gas pads bordered pristine wilderness areas.
During the Flight Across America trip, students also got the chance to meet with environmental organizations and with locals who lived on the land.
The students toured a power plant near Farmington on the Navajo reservation.
Nelson said that while on the tour, she suddenly felt something grimy in her mouth. She spit it out and realized it was a sliver of coal. The air was so thick with the fossil fuel, she said, you'd inhale pieces of it while breathing.
"I couldn't believe that work conditions exist like that," she said.
Students also got a chance to meet with some Navajo coal plant workers and their families.
"It was devastating to hear how much the land means to them, yet there's all this mining on it," Nelson said. "I just broke down at one point. It was really sad. "
When Nelson graduates from Colorado Mesa University this school year, she's planning to study hydrology in graduate school. She says what she saw from the air has inspired her to pursue a career in water issues.
"It's delightful to see a young adult so thrilled and moved by an experience," Pargiter said.
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