ASPEN TIMES - 10-13-11 Students Get Bird's-Eye View

Oct 13, 2011

Students get bird's-eye view of land use and interconnectivity

Students from Colorado Mountain College and the University of Colorado observed land-use issues from above this week, thanks to EcoFlight, an Aspen-based nonprofit.

EcoFlight allows another perspective on the effects that industrialization has on a region's landscape and occupying communities.

Students participated in its annual Flight Across America Student Program, with the first flights taking off Monday and the last ones landing Wednesday afternoon — and stopping at many places in between.

The organization each year seeks out students studying sustainability or those involved in sustainability programs at their schools. Those students have to apply and then interview before being accepted into the program. Students accepted this year spent three days flying over various national parks affected by mining and oil and gas development.

“We spend 85 percent of our time flying political decision-makers, media representatives and concerned citizens, but I feel so strongly that the future is really in our youth,” said Bruce Gordon, founder and president of EcoFlight.

Gordon, also a pilot for the program, said he hopes to inspire young leaders and have them share their optimism with their peers. He said it is the young who have to face tomorrow's environmental problems.

“We need to get more young people involved to really have a voice,” Gordon said. “We really try to educate and to advocate for the environment.”

The students said that on the ground, they met with community members and explored the regions they viewed from the air. The meetings, they said, allowed them to see the faces and hear the stories of people who live in the affected areas.

Each year, EcoFlight offers a theme for the program. Past themes included observing the effect of the beetle-kill and forest clear-cutting, along with mining. The theme for this year's trip was a view of the region's national parks and the pressures of encroaching industrial concerns.

Students flew over four protected parks: Mesa Verde National Park, where they observed the coal facilities in that area and their effects; the Grand Canyon National Park, which has uranium mines that threaten its Havasupai Indian community; the Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, only 10 miles away from the Alton strip coal mine; and Canyonlands National Park, which is impacted by nearby oil and gas development.

Ben Sehab, a CMC Steamboat Springs student, described the experience of flying over the coal fields in Farmington, N.M., a community near the Mesa Verde National Park.

“When you look [out of the plane] towards the coal fields, it was like hazy and we just thought that's what it normally looked like,” Sehab said. “When you looked out the other window, it was crystal-clear. We physically saw how those coal fields were impacting the area.”

Sehab also said that without the experience of flying over the Grand Canyon, he wouldn't have known how close the uranium mines are to the protected area.

“They are seriously pushing as close as they possible can to the Grand Canyon, as close as the law lets them. They're just ruthless.”

Ashley Basta, a CU senior, said she was surprised how strategic the companies are when extracting from specific areas, tiptoeing the laws and pressuring communities.

“The people who are concerned with protecting the national parks need to be just as proactive, and just as strategic,” Basta said.

Gordon said the program honors all viewpoints, but hopes simply to be an advocate for the environment so that anyone who has an opinion has an educated one.

EcoFlight also offers day programs to help people obtain an aerial perspective, which its website states is critical to understanding the land-use issues. For more information, visit