Place: Whitefish, Montana
Setting: Western Governors Association Annual Meeting.
Issue: Conservation of wildlife habitat and corridors and the protection of ecosystems spanning jurisdictional boundaries.
At dawn and dusk daily, EcoFlight provided the incomparable aerial perspective of the magnificent North Fork of the Flathead for governors' staff, journalists, filmmakers and meeting attendees. The Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, spanning the border of Montana and Canada, is a designated World Heritage Site. The Park is part of a large preserved ecosystem known as the "Crown of the Continent," which is primarily untouched pristine wildlife habitat. Virtually all the plants and animals which existed at the time European explorers first entered the region are present in the park today. Upstream of Waterton-Glacier Peace Park on its northwestern border lies Canada's Flathead River Valley, a 330,000-acre area in S.E. British Columbia that provides critical habitat for wildlife movement out of Glacier.
As landscapes alter due to climate change, wildlife populations must be able to shift their existing ranges and migration routes. Wildlife corridors are critical to this adaptation. The Flathead has the highest density of grizzly bears found anywhere in North America and teems with many species that are threatened elsewhere, including lynx, badgers, wolverines and bull trout. Water in the Flathead River is so pure that scientists use it as a benchmark by which to measure water quality in rivers around the world. The Crown of the Continent is one of the most intact, diverse and connected ecosystems in the temperate zones of the world. This connectivity means that large mammal populations are more resilient to changing environmental conditions because they have more habitat and genetic diversity to draw on in times of stress.While much of the Crown of the Continent has been permanently protected, the Canadian Flathead has no protection and has been under threat from coalbed methane drilling, gold and phosphate mining and mountaintop-removal coal mining. In Feb. 2010, the British Columbian government, in response to petitions by conservation groups, announced that mining and CBM development would be banned in the Flathhead. But in the absence of permanent protection, the Flathead is still open to industrial logging, off-road vehicles, transportation development and other disturbances, threatening the integrity of the landscape as connectivity habitat.
There has been a proposal on the table for nearly 100 years, to add the Canadian Flathead to the Waterton Lakes National Park, which would connect and preserve a vital corridor for wildlife moving through the Rocky Mountains. On June 29, 2010, the Obama Administration announced that the U.S. and Canada will begin negotiations to establish an international agreement and permanent protection for the Flathead River and Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.
Dear Friends and Supporters,
Many years ago I taught outdoor education courses for the local schools in Aspen. We adopted some of the principles of the National Outdoor Leadership Program (NOLS) as many of my colleagues had taught at NOLS. One of NOLS' precepts was the teaching of the 5 P's: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.
The conservation community I believe, is now engaged in these principles. We are trying to get ahead of the curve by looking down the road at our vanishing and fragmented landscapes; looking for connectivity in landscapes, additional wilderness areas and land designations that provide varying degrees of protection for corridors.
Protecting wildlife routes is also important when it comes to establishing transmission corridors for the new clean energy of solar and wind. This might be our biggest challenge as we transition from a traditional oil and gas based energy system.
EcoFlight is focused on assisting organizations who are getting involved in the land use issues associated with solar facilities, wind generating turbines and the corridors that exist or must be created to transmit the harnessed natural energy. When you fly these areas in Nevada, Arizona or Wyoming the common theme is always how these facilities will affect the wildlife and whether habitat will become fragmented. We have been fortunate to work with scientists, film crews, conservationists and the press to speak to the challenges facing all of us that want to and must be involved in the planning process. With oil and gas the land was leased so quickly, with no forethought to protecting our last best places from the fragmentation that would hamper the very survival of our wildlife.
Getting out in front of the process and getting the information to the people is at the heart of our mission statement: to educate and advocate for the environment. Whether it is wildlife corridors such as the majestic North Fork of the Flathead or the proposed transmission corridors of central Nevada ...the power of flight has been able to greatly enhance the opportunities to be positive and proactive in our approach to wildlife and energy corridor conservation.
It seems obvious from the air where we can connect and construct. Perhaps more important is that our flights help get people together so they can plan and mitigate with accurate ground-truthed information that can help the decision making that will preserve the rest of the best in the West.
A Catalyst for Wildlife Corridors.
In late April, EcoFlight worked with the Nevada Wilderness Project to survey the Southwest Intertie Project (SWIP), a massive transmission line slated to run from Idaho to Las Vegas. NWP conducted a "SWIP Trip" by commissioning thru-hiker Adam Bradley to walk the 500 mile length of the proposed transmission line. The purpose of the trip was to gather photo and video assets along the route to educate the public about the route's path and the values associated with it.
From the air, EcoFlight flew much of the length of the SWIP route, and the aerial recon, combined with the on-the-ground trip created two new opportunities for conservation. First, NWP worked with the developer, LS Power, to reroute the future path of the transmission line around sensitive sage grouse habitat, preventing fragmentation of one of the most important sage habitats in the state. Further south in the Mojave, EcoFlight flew NWP over two proposed solar development zones that had been identified by NWP as appropriate for solar development. NWP helped write innovative legislation that was introduced in Congress in June that would create a royalty stream from the generation of clean energy that could generate millions of dollars for wildlife habitat protection and restoration.
"EcoFlight's timely help was critical to our ability to make this progress," said John Wallin, Director of the Nevada Wilderness Project. "You can look at satellite imagery and you can walk the ground, but nothing can help you conceptualize large-scale conservation like these overflights. EcoFlight is a critical partner in our work."
John Wallin, NWP.
Wilderness - an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain - plays a significant role in the overall health of ecosystems. Millions of birds use Wilderness Areas as nesting and wintering grounds, as well as resting places when migrating. Lynx, mountain lion, bear, moose, and elk make their homes in, and migrate through the protection of Wilderness Areas.
In our own "colorful Colorado" only 5% of lands are protected as wilderness, mostly the high-elevation, rock-and-ice regions, such as the "crown jewels" of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass, Holy Cross and Flat Tops Wilderness. The Hidden Gems Wilderness Campaign, a citizen-generated plan, is seeking designation of major new wilderness additions mainly at the middle elevations, lands closer to the populated valley floors. They comprise the most vital habitats for wildlife, yet receive the most pressure by high-impact industry and motorized recreation; these are 300,000 acres of some of Colorado's most precious and threatened public and wildlife areas. Many of these proposed gems in our landscape adjoin existing wilderness areas and would be added to them. Others stand alone and therefore would become new wilderness areas in their own right.
The White River National Forest contains a critical stretch of a continent-scale wildlife migration corridor while providing core habitat for wildlife species including Colorado's recently reintroduced lynx population. The importance of preserving habitat connectivity throughout the Rocky Mountains was underscored recently by a 1,200-mile journey made by a radio-collared lynx from Colorado to Canada. Wildlife corridors are vital to maintaining and preserving healthy wildlife populations in a warming world. In Colorado, hundreds of wildlife corridors provide essential connections among core areas of habitat for wildlife species. The Hidden Gems proposal offers an opportunity to preserve these places forever and protect the migration routes for wildlife that have inhabited these regions for millennia, and EcoFlight has taken to the air multiple times to show the contiguousness and importance of these corridors to citizens, press and politicians.
The Hidden Gems campaign has compromised with and accommodated many diverse local groups, thereby gaining substantial support. As of September 2010, the campaign has engaged with 126 local groups, changed the boundaries 166 times, and will still be saving 342,000 acres. Three years and over 150 versions later, the wilderness proposal is ready to go. The Eagle and Summit County section of the proposal was accepted by Rep. Jared Polis in March of this year and is being considered for Congressional legislation. EcoFlight has worked on many wilderness bills over the years and supports the importance of these low lying regions and how diligently the Hidden Gems Campaign has done everything in its power to accommodate divergent opinions.
Arizona's Sun Corridor stretches from the state's southern border into Yavapai County several hundred miles north. This megaregion includes the Phoenix/Tucson "megapolitan" area which has been one of the fastest growing regions in the nation for the past several decades. Designing the future for this vast and fragile area is a challenge of the highest order.
Arizona has some of the best solar resource potential in the nation. "We support the development of a robust solar industry, the economic prosperity that comes with it, and the notion that this can be done in a thoughtful manner that is respectful of our natural resources, including our wildlife, water and public lands", said Eric Gorsegner, Associate Director of the Sun Corridor Legacy Program at the Sonoran Institute. "And, while the economy may be moving slowly, we aren't. This is an opportunity to rethink the growth paradigm, a time to think big in terms of our conservation efforts."
In Western Maricopa County the Institute is working on a landscape-level conservation plan that is "big, bold and imaginative," reaching out to a wide cross section of stakeholders including land managers, developers, the military, local governments and user groups. The Institute and EcoFlight are excited at how the aerial perspective lends itself to highlighting the plans for the Sun Corridor. In Eric's words: "This truly is Maricopa's last frontier. There are a thousand treasures hidden in plain sight. Services like EcoFlight are invaluable in helping us to bring the area to life. People who have never and may never visit these special places can still experience them visually through the images we bring back, and fully understand the value of protecting them. As the EcoFlight folks say, 'A picture is worth a thousand words and a flight is worth a thousand pictures.'''
This Tuesday, 21st September, from 8.30 am-12.00 pm
at the Pitkin County Plaza 1 building - 530 E. Main St.
Aspen, the Pitkin County Board of County Commissionars will be taking public comment on the Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal. This is the most crucial public meeting in Pitkin County and the Roaring Fork Valley to date. Please attend and voice your support.
More info at: 970 963 3977