Justin Patrick was one of seven students invited to fly over the four corners area for a week with Aspen-based EcoFlight examining land use hotspots from
Justin Patrick was one of seven students invited to fly over the four corners area for a week with Aspen-based EcoFlight examining land use hotspots from the air. (Special to The Denver Post)

I recently had the opportunity to join several other college students in EcoFlight's annual Flight Across America program. EcoFlight is an Aspen-based nonprofit that educates and advocates for the protection of remaining wild lands and wildlife habitat through the use of small aircraft.

I spent a week flying over miles of terrain following a route from Aspen to Grand Junction, from Cortez to Farmington, N.M., from Durango to Moab, Utah, and from northern Colorado back to Aspen.

We flew over many "hotspot" areas, including the Dolores River, Hovenweep National Monument, the San Juan generating station, Greater Canyonlands, the Book Cliffs, the gas fields around Meeker and Craig, and finally over some of the areas included in Senator Mark Udall's Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage proposal.

My initial impression was how proud and privileged I felt to live in America and the magnificent, romantic West. Wherever people fall in the conservation debate, I defy them to glide over the western landscape without melting into utter reverence for its vastness, diversity, and splendor.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the law that allows Americans to democratically decide where they want to isolate wilderness from humankind's impacts. Currently, a complex matrix of government organizations — mostly federal — is in charge of managing our public lands, and the debate about what should or should not be done on them continues to rage.

The varying regulations on land in the West have enormous implications for mineral extraction companies, real estate developers, hikers, hunters, mountain bikers, anglers, snowmobilers, ranchers, skiers, equestrians, dirt bikers, climbers, and anyone else who has plans to step into our backyard.

We are extremely lucky to have a backyard large enough to accommodate all these interests, but the bottom line is that the space is finite, population is growing, and the debate about what we do out here and how we go about doing it is heating up.

Like most modern-day conservationists, I don't live in a log cabin I erected in the forest, subsisting on berries and deftly captured vermin that I roast over a campfire. I have a car, I fly in planes, and I buy food at the grocery store that is trucked in from elsewhere.

And yet, I acknowledge that none of this would be possible without a healthy planet to call home. Professional conservationists, many of whom are working for free or humble pay against deep-pocketed corporate interests, believe ensuring proper stewardship of public lands is tantamount to a life-or-death situation, just placed on a longer timeline.

The areas we flew over this month are the last scraps of the west that look more or less as they did 150 years ago when the first big wave of industrial civilization washed into this part of North America. Even so, these scraps are under siege as they are eyed for yet more industrial development.

So conservationists are advocating self-restraint by an entire civilization to preserve these magnificent areas for future generations.

It has not been an easy fight, and it is not getting any easier.

Consider the last Congress was the first in decades to refuse to set aside even a single acre of wilderness. Is that going to be the new trend? Conservationists must fight exhausting uphill battles to get even these slivers of pristine wilderness protected under law.

Are they crazy for trying?

No. In fact, they are acting selflessly and with patriotic fervor. Like many brave citizens of the United States have, they are advocating decisions that have defied the behavior of most human societies dating back to ancient tribal coalitions.

Preserving the natural environment because it's the right thing to do? Well, that's as crazy as refusing to conquer a weaker village, or allowing others to believe in a different god, or judging a person's actions before a jury of his peers, or granting universal suffrage, or forging international alliances to promote peace and health and dignity.

Yet we have done these things.

And today, the Earth must be thought of as our partner, not a regularly stocked shopping mall for all our resource needs.

After flying with EcoFlight, I believe we must prescribe rights to the land, its ecosystems, and its plants and animals. We must refrain from violating those rights as a matter of law. That may be revolutionary, but no more revolutionary than the concepts that birthed the most powerful democracy in 1776.

Justin Patrick was one of seven students invited to fly over the Four Corners area for a week with Aspen-based EcoFlight examining land use hotspots from the air.