ASPEN DAILY NEWS - 10/16/11 Conservation Taking Flight

Oct 16, 2011



Chris Council/ADN

Piloted by Bruce Gordon, an EcoFlight plane on the Flight Across America educational program flies over a uranium mine onthe outskirts of the Grand Canyon. Chris Council/Aspen Daily News

Conservation Taking Flight

by Chris Council

On Monday morning three private planes left Aspen airspace. But these weren’t Learjets with leather interiors and a dedicated flight attendant for traveling CEOs. These three aircraft were tiny Cessnas more than 30 years old that looked and felt more like flying sardine cans than planes. However the mission was as important as any business executive’s: to educate students on the conservation issues facing national parks in the Southwest as part of EcoFlight’s Flight Across America.

The lead plane was piloted by Bruce Gordon, the founder, president, and chief pilot of Ecoflight. The Aspen-based nonprofit started in 2002 with the mission of providing an aerial perspective on environmental issues and threats. Policy makers, conservation groups, the media and young adults are flown throughout the West so that they can see the impact, or potential impact, that man’s activities have on the landscape.

Chris Council/ADN

Bruce Gordon, founder, president and chief pilot of Ecoflight, flies over the proposed Greater Canyonlands area in Utah.

In its ninth year, the Flight Across America Program, or FLAA, was conceived by Gordon and his good friend John Denver, whose untimely death was 14 years ago this past week. Gordon and Denver had wanted to do a flight across America, piloted by celebrities, that would have started in Alaska and ended in Washington, D.C. on Earth Day, 2000. Their goal was to draw public attention to conservation issues throughout the United States.

Gordon never forgot about the concept, and after having a prominent politician fall asleep in his plane during a conservation overflight, he decided to create a program that would involve young adults, whom he hoped would bring a new sense of energy and purpose to his organization.

The students

The first FLAA program launched in 2004 and it has continued ever year since. In the past seven years, five programs have included high school students while two years, including this year, have focused on college students.

Four students were selected to take part in this year’s FLAA: two were from the University of Colorado-Boulder, and two were from Colorado Mountain College, including the Steamboat Springs and Glenwood Springs campuses. Ecoflight chose to work with CU because of its INVST curriculum, a community leadership program that engages students in service learning and focuses on social justice and environmental sustainability. CMC was chosen as a partner school because of its newly launched degree in sustainability studies, as well as its local presence.

While talking to the students, Jane Pargiter, vice-president of Ecoflight, emphasized that although the planes can only accommodate a small number of students, the focus is on “the outreach program, it’s not just educating the four of you.”

For example, 20 year-old Ben Saheb is the student blogger for the CMC Steamboat campus. Throughout the trip Saheb took pictures and video, which he plans to develop into a documentary that will be shared via his blog and across the CMC campuses. As the trip drew to a close, Saheb shared that “to actually see these things, it sticks home on a personal level. This experience inspires me to share with the rest of the world as opposed to just learning in a classroom.”

The CU students will make a presentation to their fellow INVST classmates, as well other groups on campus. And Jenna Wirtz, a 21-year-old junior at the CMC Glenwood campus plans to write letters to the editor about her experience. The students also used social media, specifically Facebook, throughout the trip to share their thoughts and feelings with their social network.

Pargiter came of age in South Africa during apartheid, and in her opening remarks she expressed her concern for the apathy of today’s young people. She views the FLAA program as a way to “get young adults to have a voice” and engage with an issue.

Throughout the trip Gordon reiterated to the students that they “were there to learn and make their own decisions” and that they should continue to investigate the issues objectively before drawing conclusions.

This year’s FLAA kicked off last Sunday as the students gathered with members of the Ecoflight staff. A conference call with the National Parks Conservation Association gave an overview of the challenges facing America’s park system in the Southwest.

The splendor and the haze

Leaving Aspen Monday morning, the students were taken on six different flights over three days, saw five national parks and met with representatives from tribal nations and conservation advocacy groups. Gordon sums up the schedule: “This is not a mellow little trip, and I’m not a mellow little guy.”

The first stop on the trip was Farmington, N.M. where FLAA met with members of Dine CARE and the San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA). In the Navajo language, Dine means “the people” and the acronym CARE stands for Citizens Against Ruining our Environment.


Chris Council /ADN

The APS Four Corners Power Station is located outside of Farmington, N.M. on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Coal from a nearby mine fuels the power plant. Mesa Verde National Park is located approximately 40 miles to the north.

Just outside of Farmington lie two coal-fired power plants: the APS Four Corners Power Station which sits on the Navajo Reservation, and the San Juan Generating Station. The APS plant is considered to be the worst offender in the nation in terms of emitting nitrogen oxides, according to SJCA. The building of a third plant, named Desert Rock, has also been proposed on Navajo land, but the current EPA permitting process is on hold, due largely to legal action take by the SJCA. Smoke from the plants emits a haze over Farmington that can be seen from miles away, including Mesa Verde National Park which lies 40 miles to the north.

For many of the students, listening to the members of the Navajo Nation was one of the most moving parts of the trip. Dine CARE president Adella Begaye, a health care professional in the region, spoke about the drastic rise in asthma among Navajo children. During a discussion session, she told the students that unlike American citizens, “we have no other place to go.”


Chris Council/ADN

Vern Newton, a member of the Navajo Nation, becomes emotional when talking to students about the environmental impact the two coal-fired plants in Farmington, N.M. have on tribal lands. Newton's grandmother lived a quarter mile from the APS plant, which is located on the Navajo Indian Reservation.

The power generated at the plants is transmitted throughout the Southwest, with a significant amount going to Phoenix and parts of California. Conversely, a large percentage of Native Americans have no electricity in their homes. Navajo member Vern Newton’s family grew up in the shadow of the APS plant, and he became emotional when talking of the environmental blight the plants cause on his ancestral homeland, and that most people do not understand where their energy is generated.

In the words of Xavier Rojas, a 20-year-old environmental biology major at CU, “the human aspect as opposed to the environmental aspect is the difference between being told it is bad and knowing someone is getting the bad end of this.”

Following the discussion, the students were joined by the members of Dine CARE and Mike Eisenfeld from the SJCA on a fly-over of the Farmington area. Eisenfeld narrated during the trip, identifying several of the 35,000 natural gas wells that dot the San Juan basin in addition to the coal-fired power plants.

After departing Farmington, the convoy of planes headed to the Grand Canyon, where the focus centered on the threats of uranium mining to the park and surrounding area. The students took a quick trip to see the canyon, which was followed by a meeting with Roger Clark from the Grand Canyon Trust, and Cristina Gonzales-Maddux, a scientist with ITEP, the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals.

Currently there are 10,000 uranium mine claims that encompass the land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park, of which 300 are estimated to be valid. Uranium is currently in high demand, after prices spiked in recent years from $10 to $100 per pound. Environmental groups contend that the 1872 mining law that governs the claims is outdated and does not provide adequate safeguards and oversight. A two-year environmental impact statement is drawing to a close, with a proposal to create a 1-million-acre exclusion area for future claims.

However, the withdrawal would not stop existing mining in the area. Only Congress has the power to make the withdrawal permanent, but the Secretary of the Interior can legally withdraw the claims for a 20-year period. Conservation groups are urging the current secretary, Ken Salazar, to withdraw the claims.

One of the biggest environmental threats of uranium mining is the risk of water contamination. The Havasupai tribe, made up of approximately 700 people, lives in a remote section of the Grand Canyon. According to Edmund Tilousi, vice-chairman of the tribe, “the only way we have lived here for 1,000 years is because of water.” And Hertha Woody, a young Navajo leader who works with Clark, fears that water contamination would harm a “very sacred area that is enjoyed by a lot of people,” including the famous Havasu Falls.
Protecting the viewshed

The second day began with a morning fly-over of active and abandoned uranium mines on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and then a flight path that gave the students spectacular aerial views of the canyon on the way to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. Bryce Canyon is one of the last places in the United States with a “dark sky” designated by the International Dark-Sky Association. There is even a special program at the park run by volunteers who are called the “Dark Rangers.”

These dark skies are currently under threat from Utah’s first coal strip mine, located 10 miles to the southwest of Bryce Canyon. The mine currently operates on private land, and is looking to expand onto surrounding public lands. A larger mine operation would create both air and light pollution, diminishing the ability to see myriad stars from the park.

A quick hike into the splendor of Bryce Canyon was followed by the second and final flight of the day to Canyonlands National Park, located outside of Moab. Dinner included a discussion with Matthew Gross and Liz Thomas, both from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA).


Chris Council/ADN
Water from the nearby Colorado river is used at this potash mine located outside of Moab, Utah. Potash is primarily used in fertilizers, as well as industrial applications and animal feed.

Gross talked to the students about the pressures and threats that mining poses to the national parks in Utah. Funded by a large grant, SUWA is currently in the midst of a sustained media campaign to change Utah citizens’ perspective on wilderness areas.

SUWA also is working on the Greater Canyonlands area, a “viewshed” of 1.4 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land that surrounds Canyonlands National Park. Gross said the current park is a “very arbitrary and political map of what is protected and what is not.”

It would take an act of Congress to create a new national park, however the president could create a national monument under the antiquities act, but that option does not appear likely in the near future. President Bill Clinton created the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which at the time was deemed quite controversial.


Chris Council/ADN

Ashley Basta, a 21 year old senior at C.U. Boulder, asks a question during a flight from Bryce Canyon to Cayonlands, Utah. Seated to her right is 20 year old Xavier Rojas, a junior at C.U. Boulder. In the rear of the plane is Jenna Wirtz, 21, a junior at the Glenwood Springs campus of Colorado Mountain College.

‘Let the land speak for itself’

Students began the last day of FLAA with a drive to Arches National Park, located on the outskirts of Moab. While enjoying the beauty of the park, conversation turned towards energy policy and lessons learned from the trip. Rojas, the CU student, felt strongly that energy should be generated locally, so that users would see the environmental effects in their own backyard and take actions appropriately.


Chris Council/ADN

Xavier Rojas, left, and Ben Saheb discuss their the environmental impacts of energy policy at Arches National Park during a brief stopover on the FLAA trip.


The final leg of the trip took the students over the proposed Greater Canyonlands, and then east back to Aspen. Approaching their destination, the planes traveled over the Thompson Divide, where Pargiter explained the drilling issues this area of Colorado faces.

As nonprofits go, Ecoflight is relatively small. According to Form 990 filed with the IRS, the organization had revenues of $476,000 and expenses of $377,000 in 2009. Pargiter says that the FLAA trip is a small percentage of the annual budget, approximately two percent. About 75 percent of the organization’s funding is from foundations, while the remainder comes from private individuals.

Of the three planes used on the FLAA, one belongs to Ecoflight, one was donated by Aspen architect Charles Cunniffe and piloted by local flight instructor Gary Kraft, and the third was owned and piloted by John Eaton.

Funding the FLAA is a challenge, because of the scale of the program and limited number of students involved. Pargiter works hard to educate potential funders about the outreach component of the program and the exponential impact the young adults can have on their community and their peers.

The organization has developed a regional and national reputation, although it is working hard to develop local support. In the long run the organization doesn’t want to necessarily do more flights, but to have a greater impact through outreach efforts. To that end, it now has on staff an outreach coordinator as well as a videographer, who regularly update the website with flight missions, as well as send out email blasts to constituents.

Gordon has been conservation flying for over 30 years, and is considered as much of an environmental educator as he is a pilot. Speaking to the students before the first flight, he told them to “get up in the air and let the land speak for itself.”