Steve Shute with Roaring Fork Valley High School students and teacher Wendy Kennedy before a flight organized by EcoFlight and the Buddy Program.
Josie Taris/Aspen Times
Today’s youth are the environmental stewards of tomorrow, and getting them to care about the environment they will inherit from older generations is easier when done from a bird’s eye view.
On Tuesday, 33 kids from Basalt High School, Roaring Fork High School, and Rifle High School met in the Aspen Flight Academy to hear from local conservation and land-management experts before going up in a Cessna 210 plane to view the Crystal River, the Thompson Divide, and the Piceance Basin from above.
They are all participants in Buddy Program’s High School Outdoor Leadership 300-hour, school-day class with a curriculum that includes wilderness ethics, mountain weather, and local land features and management.
And, that curriculum ties in perfectly with EcoFlight’s mission, according to EcoFlight conservation programs manager Lea Linse.
“Especially for kids, who were, you know, dipping their toes in conservation, or environmental policy, or resource management, or any of these issues, to go up in the airplane and just see, basically, your backyard and all of it from the air is just so eye opening,” she said. “Because you see the interconnectedness of the landscape with the places you live and go to school and play.”
EcoFlight is a nonprofit that focuses on land and resource management and conservation. They offer flights to students, policymakers, press, and any change maker in the environmental realm. While founded in Aspen 20 years ago, EcoFlight will fly almost anywhere in the West. Two airplanes and just a handful of employees comprise the team.
The Buddy Program and EcoFlight have a long history together. For nearly a decade, High School Outdoor Leader program participants have gone on a field trip with EcoFlight to connect what they learn about land management in their hometowns to a bigger picture. LEAD program director, the umbrella program for OL, John Brasier, said that the flights are always the highlight of the kids’ year with the program.
“It’s eye-opening to see how many ways our valley is being utilized,” he said. “We can look at maps and videos all long, but it really culminates in the air.”
But, before the kids made it into the air, local land management and conservation experts introduced them to the land over which they would be flying and the conservation issues facing each area.
Omar Sarabis is the director of the Defiende Nuestra Tierra program within Wilderness Workshop, which focuses on including Latino communities in conservation efforts for public lands.
“We advocate for a sense of belonging (for Latinos) in public lands,” he said.
According to the U.S. News and Report, 57.4% of the student body enrolled in the Roaring Fork School District identifies as Hispanic/Latino as of 2019.
“Conservation is one of the most crucial topics in this valley,” he went on. “We need more farmers and ranchers that know it.”
Sanabria said that the timing of this trip between Buddy Program and EcoFlight is fortuitous, as the Biden administration recently advanced a withdrawal petition from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service for the Thompson Divide in October. That pauses any new mineral leasing in the 224,794-acre area. Existing leases are not affected.
A mineral well in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Josie Taris/Aspen Times
BLM and the forest service are collecting public comment and scientific evidence relevant to the proposed 20-year mineral withdrawal. A meeting at the Carbondale Fire Department on Dec. 14 will provide opportunity for public comment, as well.
Bill Argeros is a Redstone resident and serves on board of the directors of the Crystal River caucus, Pitkin County’s portion of the Crystal River watershed. He also spoke to the high-schoolers about Crystal River’s effort to obtain a Wild and Scenic designation through the Forest Service.
“There is a movement afoot, and some of it is very much contested, to designate the Crystal River as wild and scenic,” Argeros told the group. “We would like to see no dams and no water diversions on the Crystal River ever.”
Ranchers and property owners along the Crystal River have some of the strongest opinions on a potential Wild and Scenic designation, Argeros said.
Linse implored the students to think about that river on their plane rides: “It looks like a very fragile ribbon. I want you to think about that when you’re in the plane because the river actually is fragile.”
Only Roaring Fork High School and Rifle High School students got to go on the plane ride Tuesday. After the first flight, EcoFlight pilot Gary Kraft noted an issue with an alternator in the plane and decided to ground it for the rest of the day. He likened the problem to a dead battery. Basalt High School students will return to fly on Thursday.
Steve Shute took groups of five students up in his Cessna 2210 Centurion, a six-seater. He is a local engineer with extensive knowledge of oil and gas in the region.
Flying over the Roaring Fork Valley, students pointed out familiar areas below. Some noticed places they studied in their OL classes. Others recognized their neighborhoods.
Roaring Fork Valley High School sophomore Hunter Gifford sat in the front of the plane for his flight, trying to place himself as he flew over his hometown.
“It was interesting to see how that land was used,” he said, “When (Shute) said there were 10,000 wells, I thought of our land management unit (in OL).”
And, Roaring Fork Valley senior Cas Weaver enjoyed the beauty of the flight.
“I enjoyed seeing the area we live in and study all at once and not just parts,” they said.
While the majority of students who participate in Buddy Program’s Outdoor Leadership course and go on the EcoFlight field trip likely will not choose a career in land management, the goal is exposure.
“The hope is that a few or more (students) get that experience and knowledge to help preserve our public lands,” Brasier said.
And, if history repeats itself, it seems likely at least one more student will take inspiration from the trip with EcoFlight and catalyze it into a career in conservation. That is what happened to Linse, anyway. She first went on her first EcoFlight a sophomore in high school. Now, she’s watching the next generation discover a passion for land conservation from above, just like she did.’