HEWLETT FOUNDATION - 11/13/09 A Higher Understanding

Nov 13, 2009

A Higher Understanding

EcoFlight Plies the Skies over the American West

November 2009

Bruce Gordon

Bruce Gordon, founder of EcoFlight.

SOMEWHERE ABOVE RIFLE, Colorado – Pilot Bruce Gordon banks his Cessna Turbo Centurion II six-seater over Rifle's small airstrip and frowns. The air space just to the north, over the dramatic Roan Plateau, is socked in like a wet wool blanket. Visibility: zero.

For Gordon, this isn't just a navigational problem. As the founder and president of EcoFlight, a small nonprofit organization partly funded by the Hewlett Foundation's Environment Program, he has a problem of persuasion. Some people persuade with words. This pilot's polemical tool of choice is letting people see for themselves.

"Ranchers, hunters, politicians. . . I love getting them in my ‘office' 10,000 feet above the ground for a debate," said Gordon the night before. "People see things that don't jibe with what they believed."

Giving people that 10,000-foot perspective is the heart of EcoFlight's work. What Gordon has dubbed "conservation flying" is the only way for someone truly to understand the scale of changes wrought by actions like western oil and gas extraction, clear-cutting of forests in the Pacific Northwest, or climate change-induced beetle infestations in Yellowstone National Park. Or like the natural gas development proposed for western Colorado's pristine Roan Plateau.

The small, Aspen-based nonprofit – it's just Gordon and his office manager and partner, Jane Pargiter – occupies a singular niche in a world largely preoccupied with lobbying for and against regulations, arguing science, forming coalitions, and battling big business. He's flown governors, county commissioners, and sixth-generation ranchers, mountain bikers, and hunters – people of every occupation and political persuasion – all with the presumption that seeing is believing.

"My mission is to inspire other people to see the big picture and to understand what they are seeing," says Gordon. He follows up the flights with written materials that provide context about the locations and issues his passengers have just seen, as well as offers to get involved in different ways. "You can see the ‘aha' moment when people get up there and get some perspective."

"Old Boys with a Tear in Their Eye"

Hal Harvey, the former director of the Hewlett Foundation's Environment Program, himself from a Colorado ranching family and a longtime friend of Gordon's, says he's seen that moment more than once on EcoFlight trips.

"EcoFlight has helped make the situation much clearer for some third- and fourth-generation ranchers in Colorado," says Harvey, now chief executive officer of ClimateWorks, a nonprofit organization working to curb global warming. "After aerial tours of devastated landscape, some of these old boys land with a tear in their eye. People are scared by what they see. And outraged."

Roan Plateau

The top image shows part of the Roan Plateau untouched by natural gas exploration and development, contrasted with the bottom image, which shows part of the Roan Plateau that is under development. Photo courtesy of EcoFlight.


Among those who share that outrage is Tweeti Blancett, a sixth-generation cattle rancher from Aztec, New Mexico, near Four Corners, and former head of the local George W. Bush 2000 election campaign. For nearly three centuries, Blancett's family has grazed cattle on seventeen square miles of land that they, the federal Bureau of Land Management, and the state now own. It once ran 600 cattle on those 35,000 acres. Today, she says, thanks to drilling for natural gas and the attendant destruction of grazing lands, that number is down to 100 cows, and she fears even the family's 400 acres is beyond saving.

"We're not going to fix our problems," says Blancett, whose ranch and surrounding public lands are home to more than 500 active gas wells, each site and access road taking three acres of grazing land. "It's too far gone. But we can say, 'Let's not do this throughout the whole West.'"

Blancett says Gordon's flights have been essential to her seeing the full impact of gas exploration on her land and elsewhere and helping her show it to others.

"The area around my ranch isn't flat," she says by way of example. "It's high canyons and deep valleys. When the land is fractured from gas drilling pads and the roads that lead to them, it causes run-off and erosion. But you can't get the big picture from any one place on the ground. Pictures from Bruce's flights over the West have helped us see what we're really dealing with."

That inability to see even part of the impact of development and environmental degradation from the ground is a common story. Energy companies routinely block access to roads that would allow people to drive past development, and lumber companies often leave what are derisively known as "beauty strips" along roads to obscure the effects of clear-cutting of forests.

Science by Serendipity

Other revelations from flying over natural landscapes come unexpectedly, as when EcoFlight's Pargiter snapped a picture over Yellowstone that revealed bark beetle infestations of white bark pines in locations where scientists surveying for this byproduct of climate change had not before seen it.

For Gordon, now 64, the seeds of EcoFlight were planted in the 1980s, when he assisted in an alpine helicopter rescue near Aspen and decided to use Veterans Affairs benefits to attend flight school so that he might become a search-and-rescue pilot.

Instead, he became a pilot with Lighthawk, another Hewlett Foundation grant recipient and one of the first conservation flying services. Gordon stayed with Lighthawk until its legion of volunteer pilots grew so large that he found himself manning a desk more often than a cockpit, and decided it was time to strike out on his own.

These days, EcoFlight is on call to support environmental groups that have an issue coming to a head, media ride-alongs, and scientific field research, among other missions. When Tom Steinbach, the current director of Hewlett's Environment Program, hired Peggy Duxbury to be a new program officer working on grants to preserve western lands, one of the first things he did was call on Gordon to take Duxbury up to see the lay of the land.