EE NEWS 7-6-17 Cessna Tours Give the Land a Voice

Jul 6, 2017

Cessna tours give 'the land a voice'

Jennifer Yachnin, E&E News reporter

Published: Thursday, July 6, 2017

Bruce Gordon's plane on the ground after a flight near Glacier National Park in Montana. Jennifer Yachnin/E&E News

KALISPELL, Mont. — Seen from high above the Flathead Valley, the area's namesake river cuts across the rich green summer landscape, and its national forest blends seamlessly into neighboring Glacier National Park.

That unified vision of the landscape is something that EcoFlight Executive Director Bruce Gordon wants his passengers to absorb during his regular tours of public lands across the West. He pilots a fixed-wing, single-engine 1978 Cessna.

"Our mission is to educate and to advocate for the environment using small planes," Gordon told E&E News after a recent tour for reporters and conservationists here in Montana.


Bruce Gordon. Ecoflight

In his more than 35 years conducting such flights, Gordon said, he has focused on including politicians, reporters, concerned citizens, scientists and anyone else who might benefit from an "aerial perspective" in his six-seat plane.

"When we take people up in the air, we hope they don't look at the left or look at the right, but they look at the land," said Gordon, who founded the nonprofit EcoFlight in 2002. "It gives the land a voice."

More recently, Gordon has focused on national monuments as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reviews dozens of sites for potential reductions or management changes.

During Zinke's visit in May to Bears Ears National Monument — which he has since recommended be significantly reduced from its 1.35 million acres — Gordon conducted flights over the southeast Utah site.

"We pride ourselves to really responding to the pertinent issues of the day," Gordon said. He noted that he is personally opposed to efforts to reduce or eliminate national monuments.

"To me, if you don't like what it is, go forward, try to change things, but don't go back and second-guess everybody," he added. Gordon pointed to the fact that many former monuments have been converted to national parks in arguing that the Antiquities Act has been used appropriately by past presidents.

While Zinke and other elected officials took a private aerial tour of Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument during his visit to Utah, Gordon said he remains hopeful that his efforts will change the views of others interested in public lands.

He recalled flying loggers during the debate over preserving spotted owl habitat in the 1980s and '90s.

"The airplane would get you away from those scenic corridors that you would see on the ground, and people would realize the place was clearcut," Gordon said. He has also flown people tied to the oil and gas industry to try to instruct them on watersheds.

"My goal is to get everybody up in the air, talk about the issues and have a conversation. I like to call it conservation conversations in the cockpit," he said after a recent flight.

'There are no roads'

Peter Aengst, who serves as the Wilderness Society's senior regional director for the Northern Rockies, said he likewise hopes that passengers on EcoFlight's tours walk away with an understanding of the landscape as a whole — rather than a "color-coded map."

"There is something about being in the air to — at least with certain issues — to really show effectively the connections from a landscape perspective about how different jurisdictional boundaries really don't matter if you're concerned with the health of a watershed or effective wildlife habitat or the migration route of a certain species," said Aengst. He's been accompanying Gordon on flights for about 15 years, including his recent flight in Montana.

"It's a great way of synthesizing all the issues in a way you would never get off a fact sheet, you would never get studying maps," he added. "That's the power of doing flight."


A view over the Flathead Valley in Montana from EcoFlight's plane. Jennifer Yachnin/E&E News

In addition to Gordon's recent work on national monuments, Aengst pointed to his experience with EcoFlight surveying the 200-mile migration route of the pronghorn antelope in Wyoming.

"You're basically flying like you're doing the migration," Aengst explained, noting that the animals cross from Grand Teton National Park through areas including the Upper Green River Basin. They must also pass through a bottleneck created by housing before ending in Bureau of Land Management lands with gas fields. "You can't drive this stuff. There are no roads."

But it's not just the 20 minutes to one hour in the cockpit with Gordon that can change minds, Aengst said; it's also the time on the ground before and after flights.

"He clearly cares about the issues," Aengst said. He noted that the nonprofit covers costs including its fuel, equipment and fees, rather than asking its passengers to do so. (E&E News reporters have participated in several such flights.)

While the target audiences can range from governors to county commissioners as well as reporters, Aengst noted that the groups also include community and business leaders who can serve as advocates for public lands.

Business for Montana's Outdoors Executive Director Marne Hayes said her organization has worked with EcoFlight to build awareness about public lands and educate its own members and others.

The group recently sponsored flights in Kalispell to coincide with the Western Governors' Association's annual meeting in nearby Whitefish.

"It was a really natural partnership to team up with them, especially when we could take advantage of the WGA, and deliver this really powerful experience of our landscapes," Hayes said.

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