ONEARTH MAGAZINE - 2/23/11 The Plane Truth

Feb 23, 2011

The Plane Truth

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Pilot Bruce Gordon demonstrates the art of “conservation flying”

From the cockpit of Bruce Gordon’s six-seater Cessna 210, it’s clear that the natural world abhors human geometry. Flying a couple of thousand feet above northwestern Wyoming’s rugged Absaroka Range, Gordon took one hand off the controls to make the point, tracing with a finger the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, a few miles to the north. On the map it’s a straight line, but the aerial view offers nothing but a snarl of peaks and pinnacles, rivers twisting through emerald valleys, and the shimmering expanse of Yellowstone Lake, whose shape one nineteenth-century explorer compared to "the broad hand of an honest German, who has had his forefinger and the two adjoining shot off at the second joint, while fighting for glory and Emperor William."

Yet the mapmakers and politicians of that era divided up the land with protractors and compasses, cutting the plains into quarter sections, slicing Wyoming into a perfect rectangle, and demarcating three sides of the national park with straight lines of administrative convenience. Our aerial view laid bare the natural logic of the landscape, showing that the limits of the park define no more than an arbitrary chunk of what we now call the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem -- barely one-eighth, in fact, of its 30,000 square miles.

The park’s creators fretted that speculators would fence in the geysers and charge admission, wrecking the place as others had wrecked Niagara Falls. Since that time we have multiplied our wrecking techniques; the view from the Cessna discloses highways, sprawling resort communities, labyrinthine forest roads, natural gas fields, and pine forests dying from climate change. With each change in altitude and angle, the perspective shifts, and so do perceptions -- of the intersecting components of the ecosystem, the beauty of the land, the threats it faces, and, by extension, the strategies that are needed to protect it.

Gordon owns a company called EcoFlight, based in Aspen, Colorado, and dedicated to strengthening those perceptions in his passengers. On any given day these may include politicians, businesspeople, tribal leaders, reporters, scientists, and schoolchildren. He calls it "conservation flying." Much of it is done in the Northern Rockies, but you may also spot his Cessna over Anasazi ruins in New Mexico, flying through the brown haze drifting up from the Four Corners coal-fired power plant; above the giant Carlin open-pit gold mine in Nevada (to show Alaskan visitors what they can expect from the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay); or over the short-grass prairie of Colorado’s Piñon Canyon, which the army proposes to convert into training grounds.

Most of these lands are publicly owned and managed, in theory, for the public good, either by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. These federal agencies are charged with guaranteeing the "multiple use" of the vast acreage they administer -- on the one hand, grazing, logging, and mineral extraction and, on the other, recreation, aesthetic enjoyment, and wildlife protection. Gordon wants his passengers to think hard about how all these uses, especially in unique places like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, can be most intelligently balanced. He hardly needs to say that this is not now the case.


Gordon is in his mid-sixties. he has a stocky, athletic build and short gray hair. Born in Chicago, he grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey. When I first met him, his demeanor put me in mind of the actor Harvey Keitel (without the menace); the second time it was more suggestive of Bruce Willis (without the smirk).

As a young man, he never dreamed of becoming a pilot. He went to Ithaca College in New York on a baseball and soccer scholarship and studied business administration, and it was there that his environmental instincts began to stir. "It must have been all the forests around Ithaca," he told me. "Nature got into my soul." Then what he calls "the Vietnam thing" turned him into an activist.

In 1966, after graduation, Gordon went to Hollywood with notions of working as a stuntman at Universal Studios. The following year he took part in the march on the Pentagon. But by then the draft had caught up with him. "I was selected to go to Vietnam three times," he said, "but it never happened. In the end they sent me to Germany, and I was assigned to intelligence." Within a year, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he was working on plans for nuclear retaliation. They were confusing times.

When he was released from the service he tried finance for a while. But after a year and a half on Wall Street he packed up a ’56 Volkswagen and headed for San Francisco with $200 in his pocket. Along the way he stopped off in Aspen, met a woman, had dinner with her, and stayed. It was more for the skiing than to put down roots, which would not at that time have been in character.

With the help of the Veterans Administration, he took flying lessons and qualified as a commercial pilot. He considered a career in mountain search and rescue and wondered about Alaska. He went climbing in the Himalayas and the Chilean Andes. In 1980 he joined forces with a fellow pilot named Michael Stewart, who had formed a company called LightHawk with the novel idea of placing his skills at the disposal of the environmental movement. His closest friend was the singer John Denver, another avid pilot-conservationist. (Denver died in 1997 at the controls of his own experimental light aircraft; the last song he wrote was called "Yellowstone, Coming Home.")

Shortly after Denver died, Gordon parted ways with LightHawk and started EcoFlight, preferring to be his own boss. He runs the company with his famously efficient South African fiancée, Jane Pargiter (whom he met on a ski gondola) and a skeleton office staff. Three other pilots are on call. Aspen is a fashionable place, but Gordon and Pargiter live simply in a small cabin, with few material possessions other than the Cessna.


The first time I flew with Gordon was in July 2009, as part of a survey of the condition of greater Yellowstone’s whitebark pine forests. Whitebark is a hardy species that grows at altitudes above 8,500 feet; its nuts are a critical food source for grizzly bears. But both tree and bear were in deep trouble. The threat had been clear for at least a decade to a Forest Service entomologist named Jesse Logan, a garrulous, hyperkinetic 66-year-old who retired from the service four years ago and doesn’t seem to miss it much, perhaps because his bosses never seemed convinced of the value of his work. Logan’s field research in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range had produced striking insights into the relationship between the "ghost forests" he saw there, rising temperatures, and the consequent northward movement of the northern pine beetle, which was killing the trees in vast numbers. But he saw the service’s interest in forests as being driven largely by the timber industry, and whitebark is not a commercial species. "They said my work was conceptually interesting but I should spend my time on something more important," he told me sardonically, when we met for dinner near his home in Montana’s Paradise Valley.

As Logan’s retirement approached, his work came to the attention of Louisa Willcox, a senior wildlife advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who was gearing up for a fight with the Bush administration over the imminent removal of the Yellowstone grizzly from the endangered species list. If its main winter food source was at risk, this was a powerful new argument for the bear’s continued protection. "So I got in touch with Jesse," she told me, "and said, 'What if we do a predictive study of whitebark pine in the Yellowstone ecosystem?'"

The Forest Service had already carried out its own aerial inspections and interpretations of Landsat satellite data, but Landsat, which dates back to 1972, does not provide images with the level of detail that Logan wanted. With a resolution of 30 meters per pixel, it allows for only the coarsest distinction between living and dead forest. If a clump of gray trees is surrounded by green undergrowth, for example, Landsat will read the green. "The Forest Service said 16 percent of the forest had suffered some impact from beetles," Logan said. "But I knew that was ludicrous. The Bush administration needed a success story for the Endangered Species Act, and the grizzly was chosen as the poster child."

The data that Logan compiled from his work in Idaho had come from the far more accurate Quickbird, a commercial satellite that gave him resolution down to three meters per pixel. "The problem," Logan said, "is that it’s much more expensive than Landsat, and it’s only switched on when you pay for it."

When Logan retired, he and Willcox decided to "ground truth" the satellite evidence with a 10-day hike in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Logan invited a friend from Utah to join them -- "a hell of a GIS [geographic information systems] expert" named Wally Macfarlane. Now they had both the worm’s-eye view of the problem and the view from 400 miles up. Only one thing was missing, and in retrospect it seems obvious. "We were walking through all this dead whitebark," Macfarlane told me, "when suddenly someone said, 'I wonder what this would look like from a plane.'"

So Willcox called Gordon, whom she had known since his LightHawk days. "Bruce jumped right aboard," Macfarlane said. "His attitude was, 'Let’s go for it. Let’s not worry about the money.'" As it happened, the funding for a full aerial survey did materialize -- and part of it, mirabile dictu, came from the U.S. Forest Service, which had acknowledged by this time that the forests were indeed in dire straits.


I Hooked up with the survey on its second day. Macfarlane sat up front with Gordon while Willcox and I squeezed in behind with two student interns, each equipped with a Nikon D5000 camera that would precisely record the GPS location of every one of the hundreds of aerial photographs that Macfarlane would instruct them to take that day at fixed intervals. Logan and a friend in Wyoming had devised a numerical scale to record the health of each segment of forest: one meant unbroken green; five was red; six was all gray. In 10 days the team would fly more than 5,000 miles and accumulate more than 6,000 images, each individually coded, which would then be superimposed on a master Google Earth map covering every square mile of the Yellowstone ecosystem.

It wasn’t easy to talk on the plane, with the wind and engine noise. Our headsets crackled with exchanges between the Jackson, Wyoming, tower and the private Learjets and Citations whizzing in and out and once, unnervingly close, a United Airlines flight taking off for Chicago. "Whitebark is easy to distinguish," Macfarlane shouted to me, pointing down at a large stand of trees on the slopes above the Snake River. "From the air, it looks like broccoli. It has a much larger crown than other pines. That’s important for the health of the watersheds, because its branches retain snow much later into the spring." As we headed out over the Red Hills of the Gros Ventre Range, named for the tribe that once followed this valley on its way to the buffalo grounds, he called a number for each photograph. Lots of threes, a few three-point-fives, sometimes a four.

"How can you tell that the dead trees aren’t the result of fire?" I shouted back.

"That’s easy," Macfarlane replied. "The signature is different. With beetle mortality, all the small material remains on the tree. You don’t see that with fire."

When we approached the sheer rock pinnacles of the Absarokas, we began to see huge swaths of red and gray, and the numbers climbed the scale: "Four-point-five, five, four, five, four-point-five." He shook his head grimly.


I got together with Gordon and MacFarlane again a year later, almost to the day. The survey had been completed, the results analyzed, and a final report was to be published in a week.

The Cessna had a spiffy new paint job, with stripes of green and gold. To ward off the dawn chill, Gordon was wearing a black windbreaker embroidered on the back with a golden eagle. He looked tired, a little stressed. He said he’d been flying every day for two months, with only a brief respite for some late-spring snowstorms. But he agreed to take us up again to see whether the forest had changed significantly in the past year.

Early takeoff is essential in the Rockies to avoid the rough weather that often arrives in the middle of the day. It looked clear this morning, but appearances can be deceptive. We made a couple of passes along the face of the Tetons, then headed east, roughly following the previous year’s flight lines. The turbulence started over the Wind River Range and was much worse by the time we reached the Absarokas.

"I’m not seeing much red, only gray," Macfarlane said, peering down at the pockets of whitebark growing on the steep slopes. Gordon said he didn’t much like the weather, but he would try taking us in for a closer look. He banked the Cessna in a series of steep, tight 180-degree turns, flying parallel to the rock face at the minimum safe speed of about 80 knots -- drop below that and the aircraft will stall. Wicked bursts of wind shear rocked the plane, which suddenly seemed very small. I’d always wondered whether those little patches you stick behind your ear to prevent air sickness really work. For two of the four passengers, the evidence was that they don’t. Even Gordon’s knuckles looked white on the controls.

When we landed safely at Jackson, he took me aside and said, "I hoped you wouldn’t notice, but the stall warning went off up there."

I blanched. I hadn’t.

"Don’t you ever get scared doing this?" I asked.

"Only before I take off and after I land," he said. "But yeah, as a pilot I’m always stressed by the weather here."

Macfarlane clambered out of the plane, shaking his head. "All the bright red trees we saw a year ago have turned gray," he said. "All the stuff that I counted as a four is now a five."

The Forest Service’s Landsat images had said 16 percent of the forest was diseased; the naked eye, the airborne camera, GIS, and Google Earth showed that fully 82 percent of the whitebark in the ecosystem had suffered medium to high mortality. Only 5 percent was completely free of insect activity.

It was much more devastating, and the damage more permanent, than the 1988 Yellowstone fires, Macfarlane said, and those had dominated the media for weeks. "As a nation we’ve tried so hard to protect our national parks and wilderness areas, and then we’re hit by something of this magnitude. And without Bruce, no one would even know about it."


I asked Gordon one day to tell me the worst thing he had ever seen in his 30 years of conservation flying. He said, "Well, I have a vision of a copper smelter I saw one time down in Mexico, before they put the scrubbers on. But what’s worse is when I fly around here and I can’t go for 30 minutes in any direction without seeing a huge oil and gas development." He views this as the transcendent threat to the West. "It began under Clinton," he said, "but with Bush and Cheney it became a mission to put drilling above any other use of public lands." I would get a dramatic sense of the problem, he said, if we spent a couple of days in Pinedale, Wyoming.

When companies discover a promising reserve of natural gas, they call it a "gas play," and Sublette County in western Wyoming is a gas play of epic proportions. Only Texas has more natural gas than Wyoming, and almost half of the estimated 55 trillion cubic feet of gas in the state is right here in the Green River Basin, on land that is mainly owned by the federal government. Most of it is "tight gas," trapped in dense sandstone formations, and extracting it means smashing open the rock through a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which was pioneered by Halliburton.

The complicating factor is that the upper Green River, which bites into the southern edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, holds large populations of mule deer and pronghorn antelope, as critical in their way to the integrity of the system as the whitebark pine and the grizzly bear. The winter forage provided by the high desert sagebrush is essential to their survival. Pronghorn that summer in Grand Teton National Park migrate south as far as Wyoming’s Red Desert, almost 200 miles -- the longest known big-game migration in the Lower 48.

There was still an hour of daylight left when I got to Pinedale, so I drove a few miles south of town and turned off onto a freshly graded dirt road to take a look at the new drilling area on a mesa known as the Pinedale Anticline. (An anticline is a dome formed when rock is forced by geologic pressures into a convex shape.) The posted speed limit was 35, but that seemed to make little impression on the 18-wheelers and Halliburton pickups that barreled past me, spraying gravel.

A solitary pronghorn was grazing by the perimeter fence of Rig 320, which was painted in cheerful reds and blues. A sign on the fence said it was operated by Patterson-UTI Energy, of Houston. The air had the rotten-eggs stink of hydrogen sulfide, much like the geysers in the national park. Deep wells like these -- and in Wyoming they have been drilled as deep as 30,000 feet, as far down as the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf -- are more likely to produce "sour gas," meaning gas with high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide.


Gordon and I met in the hotel lobby at 5:00 a.m. the next day, clutching Styrofoam cups of bad coffee (part of the "complimentary continental breakfast"), and we reached the airstrip at first light. While he did his preflight checks, I strolled over to chat with a young woman who was climbing into another small aircraft nearby. I asked her what she was doing up so early, and she told me she was studying female elk for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, using radio telemetry to track their birthing patterns through vaginal implant transmitters.

An aging pickup came to a stop nearby, and two people got out. The driver was Linda Baker, a former middle-school teacher, librarian, and sometime Forest Service employee who heads the Upper Green River Alliance in Pinedale and has worked with Gordon for the past eight years. Her passenger was Wally Macfarlane. Baker was interested in using GIS in her work, and he had agreed to spend an extra day in Pinedale to help her figure out how it might advance her goals, like protecting air and water quality and diminishing the threat that gas drilling poses to wildlife. I suddenly appreciated the larger logic of Gordon’s work. His Cessna was not only an observation platform but also a point of convergence, where individuals came together to pool their skills and insights, as they had in the whitebark pine project, with Gordon providing the seating and the view.

Watching him interact with his passengers on earlier flights, I had been struck by a paradox. He obviously didn’t suffer fools gladly, and on one occasion I’d seen him get in the face of someone who didn’t seem fully to appreciate the dangers of low-altitude flying in the Rockies. But generally, when he started out on a day’s flying, he was pretty quiet, almost deferential to his companions. Once, when we were stretching our legs at a refueling stop at the tiny airstrip in Dubois, Wyoming, he’d turned to me and said, "I’m not an expert, you know. I fly with the experts. I’m just a passenger up there."

I mentioned this later to Baker. "Yes," she said, "Bruce does have that toughness -- maybe it’s a New York thing -- but he holds it in reserve. I think of him as a latent Type A personality. He’s always very considerate of the folks he flies with and their opinions, because they actually live here.

"Safety is his paramount concern," she added. "It’s a tough business." (She should know; she took flying lessons herself once and had a special fondness for loops and barrel rolls.) "So many things can go wrong in an instant," she went on. "There’s no safety net. Lots of people die here in plane crashes in the mountains." Not that I needed much convincing after our wild ride in the Absarokas.

The air was sharp and clear as the Cessna rose into the dawn sky, the way you expect it to be in Wyoming. But Baker said I shouldn’t be fooled. Because of the gas fields, ozone levels were often a serious concern. "It gets as bad here as Denver," Gordon agreed.

Interestingly, the first alarms were sounded by a local 14-year-old named Tracey McCarty, who had done a project on ozone for her school science fair. "She used a very simple method that she picked up off the Internet -- placing gas-sensitive paper downwind of the wells," Baker said. "Her results contradicted the data that the state was using, and she took her findings to the press. Even at 14 she was amazing, totally fearless in front of the cameras." McCarty’s work was instrumental in the state’s decision to install new monitoring equipment on the anticline that will predict ozone levels more accurately.

Impressed by McCarty’s efforts, Gordon took her up in the Cessna to see the gas fields from the air. Working with students is one of his passions; every summer he takes groups of kids on what he calls the Flight Across America, a program he set up in John Denver’s memory. "I spent so many years flying politicians around," he told me, "and they were a real mixed bag. One time I was flying Tom Foley, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and he fell asleep in the plane. So I thought, how do you really effect change? And I figured young adults were the key."

"As a kid, you need to know what’s acceptable and what’s not," Baker said later. "When kids are around an adult mentor like Bruce, who speaks openly about conservation and makes it seem like it’s nothing unusual, they can develop a conservation ethic that will last a lifetime."

This was doubly necessary in a place like Pinedale, Baker added, where being an environmentalist can be a thankless task. The Wyoming oil and gas industry is phenomenally lucrative, generating as much as $4 billion a year. Some operators turn a 100 percent profit on their investments. Some of that wealth stays in town, and although oil and gas brings in more than money -- the list would include crystal meth, transients, domestic violence, and unaffordable housing -- it’s tough in the current economic climate to criticize an industry that can pay a high-school graduate $50,000 or more a year for working on the rigs.


The Cessna worked its way back and forth across the anticline. To the north, framed by the Wyoming, Gros Ventre, and Wind River ranges, the meandering New Fork and Green rivers converged until they formed the migratory bottleneck known as Trappers Point. "You really see the interlocking quality of the landscape from up here," Gordon said over my headset. "You see how the wildlife corridors are getting constricted by development." It was clear from the topography that the migration paths in and out of the Yellowstone ecosystem cut straight across the sagebrush flats of the anticline. Baker pointed out the features that attract the animals in winter, when the winds off the mountains keep the mesa clear of snow. Mule deer shelter in the breaks and hollows. Sage grouse choose spots on the open ground for their leks (the word is of Swedish origin) -- mating areas where the males come to dance and strut for their female audience.

Sage grouse may be locally extinct on the mesa within a decade, Baker said gloomily. The mule deer population has already declined by 60 percent. The pronghorn, which can sprint out of harm’s way at close to 60 miles per hour, is less sensitive to direct human contact. But it needs lots of space, and here on the anticline, its range is increasingly fragmented by the spiderweb of drill pads, access roads, pipelines, pumping stations, processing plants, storage facilities, and the dark and unsightly pits used to store fracking chemicals and wastewater.

Paint them red, paint them blue, the drill rigs are a blight on the high desert landscape. Yet the anticline is still in the early stages of development. The Jonah field, starting 32 miles south of Pinedale, beyond the rim of the mesa, suggests what the anticline will look like 10 or 20 years from now. Jonah was discovered in 1975, and in 1988 the Bureau of Land Management authorized "full-field development." Three hundred wells would probably be enough, the operators said; certainly no more than 500. And they would be spaced at a maximum density of one well per 80 acres. But 1,250 more wells were added in 2003, with the density increased to one every 16 acres. "We call it Jonah creep," Baker said. "Son of Jonah, Jonah 2, Jonah 3, and now it’s the anticline," where the gas reserves are even greater.

The whole purpose of the bureau was supposedly to manage these public lands for multiple use, she went on indignantly. But what other use was possible once you had "full-field development"?


When we touched down again in Pinedale, a pair of corporate jets were disgorging men with wheelies, rig workers who commute back and forth between the gas fields and company headquarters in Denver and Salt Lake, Houston and Calgary. We climbed into Baker’s pickup and drove to a funky café on Pinedale’s main drag, where we ordered a gargantuan breakfast of cholesterol and lots of coffee.

Macfarlane and Baker sat down to discuss how she could use GIS to document the impact of fracking chemicals on drinking water. "We’ve identified 88 contaminated groundwater wells," she told him, "and I want to put together a map that shows the proximity of the injection wells to the contaminated water wells and tags them with a clickable history of each one."

"GIS is ideal for that," Macfarlane said. "It’s actually a pretty straightforward technology. You’ll be able to show the interaction between different layers of information and detect patterns that are not otherwise visible. Think of it as a spreadsheet on steroids."

"The role of science has expanded so much since I started flying," Gordon said, as we listened to their conversation. "I have GPS and automated weather reports, and satellite capability is very affordable, so you can make much better judgments in the air. Sometimes I’ll take along a videographer, and we’ll post a virtual tour on our Web site, so people can essentially fly with us and join the debate in the cockpit. You have instant access to all this data. It throws open the doors of perception."

He was in a reflective mood now, the passenger among experts. "I look at my life as a series of incredible pieces of good fortune," he said, the special rewards being to know people like Baker and Macfarlane, Willcox and Logan, and to be the means of bringing them together.

He had also learned pragmatism along the way, he said. "I used to be a black-and-white guy about wilderness. But now I’ve realized you have to sit down at the table and talk. I’m not against oil and gas, not personally and not as a conservationist. It just has to be done properly, without destroying places like Yellowstone that are central to our heritage."

Baker agreed. "The prosperity it’s brought is undeniable. But what we’re looking for is a reasonable balance. Stagger development over time. Don’t develop new areas until old ones have been exhausted. Minimize the impact on wildlife. Wait, be patient -- and keep away from the special places."