BILLINGS GAZETTE - 10/13/11 Untamed West

Oct 13, 2011




A rainbow appears through a storm in Sunlight Basin on the Absaroka Front in northwestern Wyoming.

Untamed West: EcoFlight rooted in conservation ethic

By MARTIN KIDSTON Gazette Wyoming Bureau


CODY, Wyo. -- Raindrops pelt the window of the Cessna somewhere over Chief Joseph Pass, and a rainbow appears at the distant end of Sunlight Basin.

Dead ahead, Yellowstone National Park rises to the horizon. The Beartooth Plateau commands attention off the starboard wing.

"This is some of the most beautiful country I've ever flown," said pilot Bruce Gordon, his instruments showing an altitude of 11,000 feet. "It's absolutely stunning."

President and chief pilot of EcoFlight -- a group of conservation-minded aviators -- Gordon made the pass over the rugged terrain last month as pockets of light peppered the landscape and a fire burned on the Montana border.

For the past 26 years, Gordon has flown with the aim of protecting America's public lands, carting congressmen and ministers of foreign countries over America's wild and endangered landscapes.

On this day, while flying in sneakers and shorts, his passengers include Barb Cozzens, the northwest Wyoming director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and Park County Commissioner Dave Burke, among others.

A former caver and wildlife photographer, Burke peers out the window at Dead Indian Peak and the Absaroka Front. Copper Lake shimmers below, cradled in a mountain cirque below Stinking Water Peak.

"From the air, what you see is the interconnectedness of the land," Burke said. "You can see the importance of biodiversity, which flows all the way from the genetics of various species to the ecosystems that are out there."

Gordon and his fellow pilots use small aircraft to advocate for the protection of the nation's remaining wild places.

Once policymakers and residents view the wonder and fragility of a landscape from the air, their thinking goes, they'll be moved toward conservation practices and big-picture decisions on land use.

"I do what I do because I feel, occasionally, we can really make a difference," Gordon said. "These political, ideological battles go back and forth and it can really make you crazy.

"But when you get up in a small airplane and you're looking at a landscape like this, I don't know why you'd protest against protecting it in some fashion."

Outside the windows, mountain walls tower from the valley floor, the granite scarred from the wearing of time. The fury of the Gunbarrel fire lingers on the landscape, but the forest is rejuvenating as forests do over time.

Burke puts his camera out the open window as Gordon circles around and crosses the range of mountains into the North Fork drainage. The Shoshone River meanders on an eastern course and subdivisions dot the valley floor.

"We never set enough land aside in Colorado to have these wild places," said Gordon, who lives in Aspen. "Sure, there's elk and things like that, but there aren't many predators.

"It's really just about people and roads and you don't have that here. We've got to think down the road. There's going to be a lot of people up here someday."

Gordon traces his passion for the outdoors to years of climbing in the Himalayas. He's a board member for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and he has led educational outings for students in the outdoors.

"My job is to inspire people and educate them so they can advocate for their own position," Gordon said. "Sometimes they won't see things the way I do, and that's fine. But we have to have a good debate. We can't have what's going on in our country right now where nobody is really listening to anybody else."