NRDC SWITCHBOARD - 3/11/11 Bruce Gordon & EcoFlight

Mar 11, 2011

By Louisa Willcox

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Ecoflight pilot Bruce Gordon


After a couple of near accidents, I swore years ago to never get in a small plane again, other than the one flown by Bruce Gordon, featured recently in an article by George Black in On Earth magazine.  That’s because Bruce is the safest small plane pilot I know.

It’s true that I almost threw up in his plane a few times, but we were always flying in mountain country famous for bad updrafts and wicked wind.  I recall one time when Bruce and I were taking members of the media on an aerial tour of the proposed New World Mine, in the rugged mountains at the northeast corner of Yellowstone Park.  Under Henderson Mountain lies an estimated one billion dollars worth of gold.   In the early 1990s, one of Canada’s largest mining companies, Noranda, pressed hard to get at it, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that mining would pollute waters and harm wildlife, even inside Yellowstone Park.

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Henderson Mountain, the site of the proposed New World project, looking north into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness and the Stillwater River.

Bruce was flying close by Henderson Mountain when he hit a pocket of bumpy air.  The plane dropped hundreds of feet, or that is how it was registered in my stomach.  I put my nose in the conveniently located bag.  Bruce saw my plight, and carried on with the tour like a pro.  I vaguely remember hearing him call out to the reporters where the adits, or mine shafts, would be drilled, where the tailings impoundment would be located, and the work camp and transmission lines.  When one reporter asked him a question about the proposed impoundment for mine waste (a football-field sized area), he abruptly tilted his plane to accommodate the questioner.   By then, my whole face was in the bag.

I was still gray by the time we got back to the Gardiner airstrip, but the nausea was mingled with a deep sense of gratitude—gratitude that, after a few years of working together on this issue, Bruce knew the landscape and the mine’s impact as if he worked on the campaign every day.  I had always been impressed by Bruce’s passion and knowledge, but now I had new appreciation for his ability to take the controls of the debate if circumstances demanded it.

The photos from Bruce’s plane of the proposed mine site were taken back to Capitol Hill, used in countless news articles and press packets, and became one of the most important weapons in a fight of David and Goliath proportions.  The mine was proposed at the headwaters of three drainages: two drained into wilderness areas in Montana and Wyoming, and one drained into Yellowstone Park, so the effects of acidic waters created by mining activities, would be very widespread, and complicated, in terms of geography.

If I had to describe the site without photos, which I did sometimes, I discovered I would be rambling on, waving my arms for 10 minutes about the geography and then seeking a piece of paper to draw a map on.  But with Bruce’s photos, it took seconds to convey to a decision-maker the nature of the landscape and  the threats to Yellowstone, a wild and scenic river, and vast wilderness.

Once, in collaboration with Congressmen George Miller (D-CA), and Nick Joe Rahall (D-WV), we convened an open house forum at the House Natural Resources Committee room to educate congressional staffers and others about the impacts of the mine.  Congressman Rahall began the program by pointing to several  enlarged photos of the mine site taken from Bruce’s plane, before making his point that this was an area that was too precious to mine.  Rahall’s sentiments were echoed years later in a speech made by President Bill Clinton in Yellowstone Park to announce the death of the proposal, and the buyout of the mining claims in the area—so that the site could never be mined.  President Clinton famously said, “Yellowstone is more valuable than gold”.  But, few decision-makers in Washington never would have seen the scale of the problem, or the geography that would have been harmed, if it hadn’t been for the many photos taken from Bruce’s 6 seater plane.

I can’t remember the exact year that I met Bruce Gordon, but it was when I was program director at the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.  I’m posting a shot of us in our early years together, maybe 1987.  (Yes that’s me in the bad perm.)

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(From left to right: Gonnie Siebel and Steve, yours truly, Bruce Gordon, Bob Stevens)

Bruce and I quickly became friends—we shared a history of climbing and a love of wild places.  Plus, I love flying—my father had been a pilot, a Flying Tiger in World War II—and I have always had a special place in my heart for small-plane pilots who were brave enough to fly in unpredictable and dangerous mountain terrain.  But I didn’t appreciate how valuable a pilot could be in the context of conservation work until I met Bruce.  With Bruce, I discovered that you can gain important perspectives that you simply cannot get on foot.  And I found that it was essential to provide the “big picture” to communicate the scale and nature of an ecological threat, which is often large and complex—at least in my work in a 26 million acre ecosystem.

Another campaign where Bruce’s aerial photos were central to success was our effort to curb excessive logging and roading on the Targhee National Forest in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  The Forest Service had leveled the Targhee Forest in a 30 mile straight line right along Yellowstone Park’s western border by the late 1980s.  If you drove down the road through Idaho’s Island Park, you wouldn’t see that there was a problem, because the Forest Service had deliberately left standing timber by the roads to shield the view.  But if you got up in the air, it became plain: below was a maze of roads and clearcuts as far as the eye could see.  It was no wonder that few grizzlies then survived in this country, and that elk in the fall had to sprint from Yellowstone Park to their winter range through this landscape to avoid road hunters (and relatively few big bulls successfully made the trip.)

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Targhee National Forest looking south along Yellowstone Park’s western boundary toward the Tetons.  Note the wing of Bruce’s plane.

The photos of the Park boundary (green forest on the Park side, clearcuts on the other) were so stark that we were accused of faking them.  That’s when we decided to make sure that we took the shot with the wing of Bruce’s plane in it.

The campaign was ultimately successful: litigation forced the Forest Service to stop logging and start restoring the forest in an effort that, 15 years later, has borne fruit.  Now there are more bears in this landscape, and the forest has regrown in many places.

But, the transition in forest management after litigation was not easy: conservationists and the Forest Service were the target of widespread fury, especially when a local timber mill closed.  When the Forest Service was forced to defend its position to stop clearcutting and restore degraded lands at several hostile public meetings, they showed aerial photographs just like Bruce’s to make the point: there was nothing left to cut on this part of the forest until it grew again.

I could tell you many more stories about Bruce and the campaigns he helped win.  (Yes, Bruce, you and I should write a book)!  They would all emphasize the power of a good photo, the power of an aerial perspective, and the power of a small plane and a dedicated pilot with a vision as big as his heart.

Thank you, Bruce!