I recently found myself 1,500 feet above ground, traveling at 180 mph. When I wiped away the breath-mist from the window, I could see the American West in the chill of November: snowy mountain ranges, high alpine, high desert, waves of blue mountains, the shocking red rocks of Utah, the undulations of landscape as it bore out its transformation from range to basin and back again. If I peered closer, the details revealed themselves: the way snow had blown itself into watersheds, the paths I’d hiked winding up mountains, the glint on the curves of some of the nation’s best cutthroat trout streams.
I also saw the unbeautiful: spiderwebs of fracking roads, missing mountainsides, uranium mines, orange ponds for storing tailings and dust, stands of felled trees, the white puffs and yellow haze from coal-fired power plants.
My ticket to this view was a program called “Flight Across America,” which gives college-age and early professional folks the chance to see the West from the air. It’s a program of EcoFlight, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for environmental issues from the air. Ecoflight was started by Bruce Gordon (good friend to the late John Denver, another pilot-conservationist) 13 years ago; since then, EcoFlight has flown politicians, conservation groups, media, scientists, and celebrities.
In three small Cessnas, we took off from little airports in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico: Grand Junction, Farmington, Cortez, Durango, Moab, Walden. We crammed into these 1970s-era planes with recording gear and notebooks and cameras, with hats and gloves, with headsets for communicating both within the plane and to the other planes, and with curiosity.
Below, we saw Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming; saw the Navajo nation, site of the most polluting coal-fired power plant in the United States; saw the West’s many rivers and diversions; saw the Roan Plateau of western Colorado, a major drilling site. We flew over the proposed Hermosa Wilderness Area in southern Colorado; we camped in freezing temperatures at the Hovenweep National Monument near the ruins of the ancestral Pueblo; we hiked in the heat of Moab and in a blizzard at the Maroon Bells. We also met with an array of experts representing Colorado’s politicians, ranchers, mountain bikers, conservationists, and photographers.
The amount of information we absorbed from our pilots and guest speakers was immense. But perhaps the most important discovery—for those of us who hadn’t flown like this before—was the simple but essential confirmation that the landscape is a whole. Despite the state lines, designations, management agencies, political jurisdictions, and roads, the planet Earth is the planet Earth, a continuous entity. As the snowy peaks morphed into plateaus and into high desert, it was clear that the natural world does not segment or cut herself up at all…
Every day, we witnessed yet more instances of ecological and political interconnectedness; each night, the students would gather around and discuss the questions these examples raised: How can we see the West as a whole, and act accordingly? And how does one action influence others? Indeed, was this very trip culpable in some way? Was using up fuel to see these areas worth it? When I posed that question to Bruce Gordon, the program founder, he said, “That’s always a tough question, but we do our best to offset our carbon footprint as much as possible through various carbon savings in other areas. We work diligently to minimize flight times. We ensure that on each and every mission the value added of empowering our passenger participants and the subsequent outreach is worth the cost in adding to a carbon footprint. We aren’t against oil and gas, but we feel it can and should be done properly, and there are some places it just shouldn’t be done.