A small aircraft flew low over the Gunnison Valley early Sunday morning.
The engines drowned out the sound of pencils scribbling, as students in the Western Colorado University Nature Writing MFA program jotted down notes. The trip was facilitated by EcoFlight, a non profit organization whose mission is to “to educate and advocate for the protection of remaining wild lands and wildlife habitat using small aircraft. The aerial perspective and our educational programs encourage an environmental stewardship ethic among citizens of all ages.”
The idea was to give the developing writers a new perspective on the public lands surrounding the valley.
Through aircraft headphones, High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) Public Lands Director Matt Reed provided commentary on the view out the windows, pointing out mountains, gulleys, rivers and large swaths of land that could receive wilderness designation under proposed federal legislation, the Gunnison Outdoor Resources Protections Act (GORP).
Seeing the world from that vantage point, the usual boundaries fall away. Fences and private property lines become invisible and public lands designations disappear. Even roads are reduced to brown squiggles which cut soft lines through the undulating landscape.
“From the air you get that whole perspective,” said Laura Pritchett, director of the MFA program. “That unifying perspective. It’s not designations or particular trails, it’s just this landscape that just stretches on and on.”
The weather on Sunday was balmy and the flight was smooth, something Pritchett says isn’t always the case. As a journalist and author, she’s flown with EcoFlight two other times.
“It was so sweet to be just floating,” she said. “I just felt like I was floating above this beautiful area.“
The EcoFlight experience is a first for the masters program. In the past, Pritchett took students hiking to places like Irwin Lake during the intensive residential phase of learning that starts each academic year. This trip was something special she arranged with EcoFlight, and it paid off for the students.
“The experience was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Evonne Ellis said. She lives and works in a fire-tower in Oregon, about which she is writing a memoir. Previously, she worked at Curecanti National Recreation Area and said the flight brought together many different themes and ideas about water’s place in the West.
“When I think about how we’re using water, and how residents of this valley are using water and how much of this water is actually going to Glen Canyon … we need to start thinking about how we’re using what’s around us,” she said.
Fellow MFA student, Bryce Swaim echoed that sentiment. Like Ellis, he is on the verge of graduating and, having also earned his undergraduate degree from Western, has been in Gunnison for over four years. As a poet, primarily, he said the flight gave him fresh ideas on where to take his writing.
“’I’ve lived in this valley for a long time, so it was interesting to see how they are all connected in this bigger system,” he said. “It makes me want to look into the interconnectivity of systems because, from that angle, you can see the habitat change from elevation and, the water, how it changes.”
For Reed, a Gunnison native, the flight was a refresher.
“For me, it’s to see the vastness of this landscape,” he said. “From the air you can really see how Gunnison country is a hub connecting the Sangre de Cristos, the Saguache mountains, the San Juans and Grand Mesa. Really, it’s the center of an interconnected public lands network. That’s outstanding on its own, and it’s outstanding as a resource for wildlife.”
(Jacob Spetzler can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or email@example.com.)