EcoFlight gives students bird’s-eye view of ‘mega-drought’
October 16, 2015
Aspen resident Bruce Gordon has flown countless hours over the Four Corners region, but something struck him as different Tuesday as he gazed at one of the most prominent features of the landscape.
"I saw Lake Powell as just a river," Gordon said Thursday while recounting the flight. The water level is so low that Lake Powell resembles the Colorado River that it dammed rather than a mighty reservoir feeding the growth of the Southwest.
Gordon made the flight as one of the pilots in EcoFlight's Flight Across America program — where promising college students with an interest in conservation issues are given a whirlwind air tour to study in-depth a topic affecting the Rocky Mountains or the Colorado Plateau. This year's topic was "Mega-Drought: Exploring the Future of Water Across the Western United States."
The students — four undergraduates and four graduates — convened in Aspen on Sunday and got a perspective on the supply and demand on the Colorado River from the Roaring Fork Conservancy. They took to the air Monday on the first leg of a tour that would cover 1,200 miles in three days.
"Going over the Grand Canyon was pretty spectacular," said Emilio Mateo, who is pursuing his master's degree in geography at Denver University.
He was fascinated to learn how the Havasu tribe has managed water effectively for thousands of years in a barren environment, but now the population boom in the Southwest threatens to tap out the limited supply of the Colorado River.
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Another highlight of the trip for Mateo was flying the Animas River corridor north of Durango on Wednesday and getting a bird's-eye view of the Gold King Mine spill. The rock lining the riverbank remains stained an orange hue even though the river has flushed the heavy metals downstream.
The students witnessed how oil and gas development has fragmented the Roan Plateau outside Rifle. They flew over major industrial complexes such as a potash plant outside Moab, Utah, and open-pit coal mining in the Navajo Nation.
Katie Junghans, who is pursuing her master's degree in environmental science and policy at the University of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, said she never realized how small the Colorado River is until seeing the ribbon snaking through the rocky landscape while in the air.
Ryan Lima, also pursuing his master's degree at the University of Northern Arizona, said he was struck by how the cities and towns in the high, barren desert pop up as little green spots.
The EcoFlight trip wasn't just about sightseeing. The students met with a diverse set of stakeholders who depend on water in the Colorado River Basin — ranging from Navajos trying to eke out a living on ranches to developers of a proposed village on the South Rim of Grand Canyon and conservationists battling to preserve wildlife habitat.
They toured the massive Glen Canyon Dam. They met with the operator of a uranium mine about 20 miles away from the Grand Canyon. They exchanged views with Cory Gates of Aspen Weather, a meteorologist who told them why he doubts humans play a significant role in climate change.
"We kind of grilled him with a lot of questions," Mateo said. "I had never really talked to a (climate) skeptic."
Junghans said she appreciated that EcoFlight lined up sources with diverse views. It opened the minds of her and her colleagues, she said, and possibly made the presenters consider other points of view.
"You can't just dismiss people when they're sitting right in front of you," Junghans said.
EcoFlight doesn't browbeat students in its programs with a slanted message. Gordon said he tells them not to listen to the "left" or "right" but to base their own opinions on what they see and what they learn from talking to stakeholders.
Gordon founded EcoFlight with his friend, musician John Denver. A variety of programs are designed around the concept of getting current and future policymakers or influencers in the air for a different perspective on issues. Gordon and Denver intended to launch Flight Across America in 2000 as a way to highlight environmental issues. They planned to coordinate flights piloted by celebrities, launching from Alaska and landing in Washington, D.C., on Earth Day. Denver died before they were able to pursue the dream. Gordon chuckled that people didn't return his calls as frequently after his star collaborator was gone.
Gordon refashioned the program nine years ago with the idea of getting students up in the air to study issues. They get roughly 25 applications per year and select eight or so students. Other pilots and aircraft owners contribute their efforts to make the program work.
The eight college students shared what they learned with about 200 younger students from six high schools in and around the Roaring Fork Valley. They showed dazzling images and a "letter to the headwaters" of the Colorado River about their journey at the presentation at Aspen High School. The letter described what they saw and learned, and it urged the high school students to get involved in efforts to conserve the Colorado River.
Gordon said it was rewarding to see the college students study the issues so intently.
"We as pilots, we as conservationists, we really care. They got it," Gordon said.