Newsletter Winter 2011

Nov 28, 2011

Jewel in the Crown of the Continent


Lake Pend Oreille - largest lake in Idaho.  (c) Jane Pargiter, EcoFlight 2011.

Water in Northern Idaho around Coeur d’Alene is the most crucial resource in the area. This wettest part of Idaho – from the Scotchman Mountains down to the Clearwaters is called the interior rainforest or interior wetbelt. Lake Pend Oreille (which the Clark Fork empties into and the Pend Oreille river drains out of), is the largest lake in Idaho and one of the largest in the United States. So deep and clear that the U.S. Navy trained with submarine and sonar in Lake Pend Oreille during WWII, and Navy submariners still train at the naval station there.

EcoFlight was in the area working with the bipartisan (what a concept) Western Governors Association (WGA) at their annual meeting in one of the most beautiful and pristine parts of the state. Flights highlighted the Clark Fork as the important watershed it is-everything west of the Continental Divide in the northern Rockies drains into the Clark Fork, from Glacier Park in the north to the Bitterroot in the South, and from the Clark Fork River into Lake Pend Oreille. In the face of our global water crisis, a pristine watershed like the Clark Fork is paramount for the health of all communities within and downstream of this watershed.

This Crown of the Continent ecosystem is one of our last truly wild places in the lower 48 - home to species such as grizzly bears – eating riverside grasses in the spring, them moving upslope to feed on berries in the summer, and hibernating up high in the mountains in late fall – to a multitude of other wildlife - eagles and hawks, wolves and deer, butterflies and fish.

EcoFlight’s bird’s eye view of this landscape helped WGA attendees understand the ecosystem concept: that not only the plants and animals, but also the non-living components such as the rivers, mountains and weather systems play into this cycle that will continue to be perpetuated if it is allowed to function naturally. EcoFlight stressed the importance of protecting these areas that will allow this ecosystem to continue to be sustainable. We flew the Clark Fork and Pend Oreille river valleys and the adjacent wild lands like the Lightning Creek and Scotchman Peaks areas. These landscapes are roadless and quite unusual-not threatened by any mineral, energy or development proposals. It is therefore vitally important to permanently protect these remarkable river systems and spectacular wild lands, so as to protect wildlife corridors from being impeded.


Letter from the President



Dear Friends and Supporters,

Optimist. A person disposed to take a favorable view of things.

If you are not an optimist in the conservation business you might want to think about another profession.

Recently we completed our 7th annual Flight Across America student program. For those of you not familiar with this program it was conceived by my late and great friend John Denver and me, to utilize celebrity pilots to fly across the US of A and highlight conservation issues and challenges. When John, one of the great optimists, passed away we improved on this idea by targeting young adults to inspire them to become leaders in the conservation movement, to have a voice and contribute intelligently to the debates regarding the environment.

The students who accompanied us embodied the sense of optimism and can-do attitude: a great reminder of why I continue to work in this field alongside some of the most dedicated conservationists on the planet.

Over the last few months our optimism has paid off and we have been able to celebrate a number of victories. In our present political climate or moral climate, ideological climate or even climate’s climate (as in climate change) we need to keep an optimistic approach. Regardless of past and present administrations we must never give up our vigilance, and continue to speak out and advocate our views.

I was recently at the Environmental Grant Makers (EGA) meetings in Jackson, WY. The foundations represented, the attendees and the progressive and informed views they share is another great reason for optimism. It is heartening to be a part of so many dedicated individuals working together for a common purpose. EcoFlight added to the educational component of the meeting with flights over the Gillette coal mines and over hydraulic fracturing in the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields. Challenges abound, as we learned in some of the EGA sessions: from the notion of peak oil a few years ago to new projections about the US now being a net exporter of energy; plans by industry to open up both coasts of our country to off-shore drilling, to tar sands in Canada; oil sands and oil shale development in the US, to the hotly contested $7 billion proposition of the Keystone XL Pipeline, to the Koch brothers ideological agenda—manipulating and bankrolling policies and inciting masses.

It takes an optimist to hear these presentations and be able to recognize and positively address these threats in a proactive and thoughtful manner. These meetings helped reinforce me in my role as an activist to continue working to protect our landscapes bolstered by the optimism of our young adult population and my staunch colleagues.


Bruce Gordon.



Grasslands - Our North American Serengeti


Frenchman Creek Valley with Zortman-Landusky Mine in distance in
Northern Plains of Montana.    (c) Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight 2011.


The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity. Wayne Fields, “Lost Horizon” (1988)

Many of us do not fully appreciate the importance or the inherent beauty of grasslands. We concentrate our efforts on protecting and preserving our majestic mountain ranges, forests, rivers and oceans. America’s grasslands are incredible landscapes with diverse and fragile ecosystems that don’t often get the protection and attention they deserve. Poor management such as over development and overgrazing has allowed our North American grasslands to dwindle to a mere fraction of their former abundance and fertility. According to research conducted by Nature Conservancy scientists, grasslands and prairies are the world's most imperiled ecosystems. Only five percent of grasslands are protected globally. EcoFlight works collaboratively with a long list of our partners to preserve these crucial habitats.

This article highlights some of EcoFlight’s aerial work over some of the most endangered of these areas from the Northern Montana Prairie and the Bitter Creek Wilderness Study Area (WSA) in Montana through the Comanche grasslands in Colorado south to the Otero Mesa in New Mexico.

Near Great Falls in Northeastern Montana the Charles Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument and the Bitter Creek WSA form some of our most pristine prairie landscapes in North America. These native grasslands are home to elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, antelope and 235 species of birds. Permanent protection is being sought for a portion of this area, as are comprehensive conservation plans to provide long-range guidance and management direction to protect the wild land qualities of these areas.

Down in South Eastern Colorado the Picketwire (Purgatoire) Canyonlands, on the Comanche National Grasslands south of La Junta near Pueblo, is home to the largest known set of dinosaur tracks in North America. 150 million years ago, the area was part of a large shallow lake and was teaming with Brontosaurs and Alosaurs, whose preserved footprints are exposed at the Picketwire Canyonlands dinosaur track site. Our flights took us over this largest functionally intact area of prairie in Colorado, a spectacular region of rimrock, canyons, junipers, cactus, grasses and cottonwoods.

Bordering the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, the Otero Mesa, located in rural southern New Mexico, is the largest and wildest Chihuahan Desert grassland left on public lands in the U.S. This stunning area is widely considered to be among the most biologically rich and diverse desert eco-regions in the world and contains one of New Mexico's largest untapped fresh water aquifers. Conservation groups have worked successfully to safeguard Otero Mesa from oil and gas development for over a decade, but there is a new and even more volatile threat to this wild desert grassland - hardrock mining.

As conservationists and humans we need to take time to explore, appreciate and protect the treasures that our grasslands hold -an incredible range of plants and animals like buffalo, black-tailed prairie dogs and sage grouse, as well as habitat and resources that support local communities and wildlife.


Victory Lap


grand canyon uranium

Kanab North Uranium Mine, Grand Canyon National Park. 
(c) Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight 2011.


The last couple of months have been filled with good news for conservationists around the West. Having been a part of several successful conservation campaigns and victories this fall, we at EcoFlight are feeling extra festive as we enter into this holiday season.

20 year mining ban on 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon

For the past decade we have flown over the Grand Canyon documenting existing uranium mines and proposed mining in the watershed and their effects on tourism, and water and cultural resources. In October the DOI indicated their preference for a 20 year ban on all new uranium mining on one million acres surrounding the park. The ban which came after years of effort and thousands of public comments is praised around the country as a huge victory for one of our nation’s most iconic landscapes. And in our home state of Colorado, we also have a court ruling that has put uranium mining on hold in southwestern Colorado on 42 square miles of federal land in Mesa, Montrose and San Miguel counties.

2001 Roadless Rule is the law of the land

In 2001 the Clinton administration’s Roadless Conservation Rule protected 49 million acres of forest from commercial logging and road building. After the rule was overturned, Colorado and Wyoming petitioned for their own roadless protections, but those fell short of the protections in the 2001 rule. In October 2011, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the 2001 national rule, restoring protections on 49 million acres of roadless forest, including 4.4 million acres here in Colorado.

Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act

At the end of October 2011, Montana’s Senator Baucus introduced the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which will create a 207,000 acre Conservation Management Area, add 67,000 acres of new wilderness and help fund a program to fight noxious weeds on the Front.

Clean Air Regulations for National Parks

The Clean Air Act calls for regulating air pollution and the protection of views in National Parks and wilderness areas. But visibility in parks is declining due in part to nearby power plants and fossil fuel development.  The EPA’s program to protect air quality in these areas hasn’t had much traction - until now.  After pressure from environmental groups, the EPA is finally starting to use its authority to enforce clean air regulations, prompting power plants near Mesa Verde National Park to install cleaner technology, and some coal-fired power plants to stop burning coal altogether.

San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act

There is lots of exciting news on the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act. In late September Senator Mark Udall and Senator Michael Bennet introduced The Bill which will protect about 66,000 acres in the western portion of the San Juan Mountain Range in southern Colorado.

The North Fork of the Flathead River

The wild and scenic character of the Flathead received formal protection north of the border in November by the Canadian legislature. The North Fork Flathead Watershed Protection Act, co-introduced by Senators Tester and Baucus is in the Senate and confirms the Flathead's protection from mining and energy development.

Public input sends drilling plan back for review

After receiving a record number of public comments, the Forest Service has called for a more careful review of a controversial plan to drill the Upper Hoback in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest. The decision brings the development plans back to the drawing board, with a new alternative that calls for a more conservation-minded plan. The Wyoming Range is close to our hearts at EcoFlight and we are delighted that the work of the local communities and our hardworking partners is starting to pay off, but there is more work to be done.


Raising awareness through flight and the aerial perspective has played a critical role in these issues and EcoFlight is proud to have been a part of them. We congratulate everyone who has worked on these campaigns and are excited to celebrate these victories with you.


Flight Across America - Students Study National Parks


students flaa 2011

FLAA 2011 students Ben Saheb, Jenna Wirtz, Ashley Basta, Xavier Rojas. 
(c) Jane Pargiter, EcoFlight 2011.

In October 2011, EcoFlight conducted its 7th annual Flight Across America Education Program with students from CU Boulder and Colorado Mountain College.
The topic of study this year took us to four states and focused on iconic national parks in the southwest and the environmental pressures being imposed on them. Xavier Rojas, an Environmental Biology major at CU Boulder and enrolled in CU's National and International Service Training Program contributes this article about his experience.

The Other End of the Light Switch

Xavier Rojas

Smog is different when you see it from the sky.  From ground level, you might not even notice it. In an industrial city, it surrounds us every second of the day, literally engulfing our world, so abundant that it’s invisible. But recently I was given the opportunity to see it from the sky, and it opened my eyes to the consequences of our energy consumption.

This experience was part of a once in a lifetime opportunity, provided by a non-profit called EcoFlight. It was their annual Flight Across America (FLAA), where students apply to join them on an overview of a region in the U.S. to examine numerous environmental and social threats from a six-person Cessna airplane. This year, part of the FLAA checked out National Parks in the Four Corners region, where we not only got a bird’s eye view of these marvelous landscapes, we also met with involved environmentalists in each region.

One of the more eye-opening stops we made on the trip was in the San Juan Basin.

The San Juan Basin is home to Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, and encompasses a large portion of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.  It is also home to two of America’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants, the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant, only 15 miles apart from each other.

As we first flew into the basin, we were making a drastic transition from the snow dusted San Juan mountain range to a vast open valley that supported desert ecosystems. But more notably, we were moving from crisp, clear mountain air into a thick yellow-brown colored haze.

The impact of the coal-fired power plants in this valley is unmistakable.  I could gaze out one window and see air as it was meant to be, while the other displayed a massive cloud of smog that filled the entire valley with toxic byproduct.

I saw the Mesa Verde National Park area along with the towns of Farmington and Shiprock, NM, in the basin within the smog and could only wonder how this region was subjected to such a plague. Thankfully, when we landed in Farmington, we met with several environmentalists who were able to enlighten us on the subject.

Mike Eisenfeld, a member of the San Juan Citizens Alliance and successful proponent of environmental policies in the basin, explained to us that back in the 70’s, this land was labeled a “National Sacrifice Zone.” The reason for this was, in his words, that “natural resources were so vital to the rest of the national interest that everything else takes second to energy development.” The power plants in the San Juan Basin supply energy to cities as far as Tucson, Arizona, El Paso, Texas, and Anaheim, California.

“Our personal opinion for those of us who live here is that we prefer not to be sacrificed,” stated Mike in a half-joking tone.  It’s a statement that isn’t hard to sympathize with.

Adella Begaye from Diné CARE, an organization of citizens from the Navajo Nation fighting for environmental protection, illustrated to us the gravity of the situation. “Basically, here we have two massively producing and polluting power plants right next to the San Juan River, a major contributor to the Colorado River. Yet there are people here living so impoverished that they have no electricity or running water”.

Pollution from the power plants has ruined the primary water source for many citizens and has increased the rate of respiratory illness to staggeringly high levels.

“I only wish that the dominant society could see what is happening to the people here… Our lives are being sacrificed just so they can turn on their lights at night,” Adella exclaimed.

We have all heard that coal power is bad from our peers, teachers, newspapers or TV programs.  But until now, there was no face to the victims of our energy consumption.  Hearing the story from the other end of the light switch will forever remind me that the impact of our energy consumption stretches into the lives of our neighbors.


View FLAA photo gallery by Colorado Mountain College student Ben Sahib. Be sure to scroll down the photos to read his excellent blog about the program.


Visit our website to see photos, video and learn more about this years Flight Across America.



EcoFlight Spotlight


Hertha Woody Grand canyon

Hertha Woody, Navajo activist.  (c) Krysia Carter-Giez, EcoFlight 2011.

As we conduct our overflights throughout the Rocky Mountain West we have the good fortune to spend time with individuals who  inspire us with their passion and commitment to an issue.

Our recent Flight Across America Student Program introduced us to fellow activists whose work "in the trenches" is having a profound effect. We were honored to have Hertha Woody, a Navajo, share with us the immediate effects of energy development on Navajo, Hopi and Havasupai communities. Her personal stories brought the issues of environmental and social justice sharply into focus. Hertha, a former Grand Canyon Trust staffer and currently  a consultant for the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, focused on the impacts of the uranium mining development on the borders of the Grand Canyon National Park.

Her gentle unfeigned wisdom drew us all in and left us wanting to learn more. After the student program Hertha wrote a letter to the students which we would like to share.


Dear EcoFlight Students

Ahe’hee! Thank you for inviting me to be a part of your circle as you continue your epic journey with EcoFlight’s Flight Across America Program. It was an honor to have your undivided attention to talk with you about the environmental injustice from the uranium industry, and what it has done to the Navajo people and our land.

I commend you all from the depth of my heart and soul where the love for Mother Earth and all its beings are considered sacred; a place where only knowledge is stored from ancestral wisdom of Mother Earth and its creation. Thank you for seeking the truth by going into the communities to hear about our stories and our concerns about mining industries that have negatively affected our way of life as indigenous peoples.

Our meeting time was short, however I wanted to share with you one very important responsibility an “eco warrior” such as yourselves must keep in mind as you work on environmental issues facing a specific community. Please look at the community spherically. There are many leaders in an indigenous community; such as Tribal (government) officials, elders, traditional and spiritual leaders. The issue then becomes multifaceted. The beauty of working toward community building with a variety of views for a singular issue is to be creative and caring in your work. This is true for non-indigenous communities as well.

Remember, I am here as a resource for all of you. Many blessings your way as you continue your grand endeavors!

Warmly, Hertha Woody


FLAA Student Joins National Parks Delegation


ashley in plane


Congratulations to one of our Flight Across America students, Ashley Basta, who was chosen to be part of a National Parks and Conservation Association delegation who met with top EPA and Congressional officials in Washington DC. The delegation urged the EPA to uphold the Clean Air Act and prevent polluting industries from undermining set laws and allowing poisonous and sight-impairing soot to continue to be pumped into the air.

Ashley, quoted in an NCPA press release: “These places are too precious to be destroyed by preventable pollution like that from coal-fired power plants and other extractive industries. I was recently fortunate enough to take part in EcoFlight’s Flight Across America Student Program, which gave me a whole new appreciation for parks in the Southwest and an increased awareness of how fragile they are. The EPA’s rules are there for a reason; if they are not upheld these treasured places are in danger of irreparable damage.”