The aerial view as political weapon |

The aerial view as political weapon

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

If Aspen environmentalists formed a group of street performers, Bruce Gordon would undoubtedly be the fire-eater.

Gordon hasn’t embraced the idea that environmentalists must seek compromise and carefully reconcile their actions with public opinion. Instead he unapologetically attacks the Bush administration’s environmental direction. He’s devoted his career to educating people about the potential effects on public lands of various policies, such as increased oil and gas exploration in the Rocky Mountains and the red-rock canyons of Utah.

During his 23-year environmental career, he’s worked on projects as diverse as wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park and “exposing” the ecological price of logging the Costa Rican rain forest.

Bert Fingerhut, an Aspenite who helped start the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and has served on the board of the Wilderness Society, said Gordon is as fiercely devoted to environmental causes as anyone he knows.

“It’s almost like you want him on a tranquilizer,” said Fingerhut with a chuckle. “He’s intense. He’s hopping around doing 50 million things at once.”

The 59-year-old Gordon has found a unique way to exercise his take-no-prisoners environmental ethic. As a longtime pilot, he realized that the view from the air adds an important dimension to environmental debates.

It’s one thing to drive to what seems like an isolated oil well perched on the periphery of Canyonlands National Park. It’s quite another to see from the air an entire flank of the park where an oil company’s seismic tests have etched a grid of exploratory pathways.

“I get to see the world as not many people get to see it,” Gordon said. “It inspired me to look deeper into environmental concerns.”

What he discovered was the “fragility of our systems” and the “wonders of our landscapes.”

So 2 1/2 years ago Gordon created EcoFlight, a nonprofit organization that takes journalists, elected officials and policy makers up in airplanes to gain another view of public lands at the center of environmental debates. Essentially he’s a one-man squad in an informal Environmental Air Force.

Took wing with LightHawk

Gordon got his start in “conservation flying” with LightHawk, a Lander, Wyo.-based organization that harnesses pilots, mostly volunteers, throughout the West. He was a LightHawk staff pilot from 1981 to 1999 and worked primarily out of Aspen.

LightHawk assists other environmental groups but doesn’t advocate positions, explained Terri Watson, who stepped down as the organization’s executive director last month. Gordon was a veteran of the organization who was used to a certain style, Watson said. When a new generation of workers came in, they brought a different style. Gordon decided to leave.

“You wouldn’t want to put it as acrimonious,” Watson said of the divorce. She said she has a lot of respect for the passion Gordon has for his job.

When asked about LightHawk, Gordon’s demeanor shows hints of frustration, but he won’t discuss his departure in detail. He said it was simply time to start his own, smaller organization where he could dictate the policies.

At EcoFlight, Gordon doesn’t shy away from advocating positions. Big industries such as oil and gas, timber and development are well-represented, he said, and the environment needs someone to speak for it. He views conservation flying as a way of leveling the odds.

“One of the things we learned early on with conservation flying is it’s a magnet for the press,” said Gordon.

So when thousands of reporters and a worldwide audience traveled to Utah for the 2002 Winter Olympics, Gordon’s EcoFlight teamed with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance to jump at an opportunity. They flew several reporters from national publications around Moab and Canyonlands to make them aware of the battle to protect more of the stunning, harsh terrain as wilderness.

Focus on oil and gas

One of the first issues Gordon tapped into with EcoFlight, and one that continues to dominate his time, was the Bush administration’s relaxation of rules on oil and gas exploration on public lands. Gordon said that should be an “enormous concern” for anyone who loves the landscapes of the West.

He’s worked with environmentalists to raise consciousness about the potential effects of drilling in places as far away as the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana and as close as the Roan Plateau west of Rifle, Colo. Eventually, he said, the issue will affect all sorts of public lands throughout the West.

“I knew it was going to be coming to a town near you ” real soon,” Gordon said.

Late last summer he teamed with the Colorado Environmental Coalition to take local reporters, council members from towns like Rifle and Parachute, and Garfield County government staffers over the Roan Plateau.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is considering opening at least some of the plateau to oil and gas exploration. Meanwhile, environmentalists claim the vast, flat-topped mesa deserves greater protection from oil and gas exploration. They say it contains some of the richest wildlife habitat in Colorado.

Gordon said he understands the need for oil and gas as well as the need to lessen dependence on the Middle East. But those needs shouldn’t outweigh the importance of preserving lands that are scenic or important to the survival of wildlife.

“Opening every available bit of land doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.

The environmental movement has achieved mixed results in raising Americans’ awareness on the issue, he said. The president’s high-profile attempt to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling sparked widespread opposition that ultimately blocked the proposal. The president’s proposed energy bill ” criticized widely for relaxing too many regulations on exploration on public lands ” wasn’t passed by Congress during the 2003 session. Both issues are expected to resurface.

While the high-profile issues receive due scrutiny, local and regional issues like exploration on Roan Plateau still draw too little attention, Gordon claimed.

“We’re making some inroads but we’ve got a long way to go,” he said of the big picture.

Environmental ebb and flow

During 23 years in the environmental movement, Gordon has witnessed its strength and effectiveness ebb and flow.

He believes the professionalism of environmental groups and the sheer numbers of people involved have increased drastically since 1981, but he’s troubled by the general attitude in the United States. He recently saw a poll that showed 61 percent of Americans felt environmentalists have extreme points of view.

“People say the environment is important to them, but when money is tight the bottom line is the dollar,” Gordon lamented.

He isn’t spooked about being perceived as “extreme.” It is the responsibility of environmental groups to be strong advocates, he said. He fears that environmentalists in general have “lost some of their direction.”

The last four years have been tough on conservation organizations.

But the organizations haven’t been as successful getting policies adopted during 3 1/2 years of Bush’s reign. Wilderness designation is, for the time being, a lost cause.

“I get bummed these days, if that’s the word for it,” acknowledged Gordon. “I’m as bummed as I’ve been in 20-some years.”

The Bush administration is “rolling back regulations that took years to form.” He cited air- and water-quality regulations as well as possible changes to the Endangered Species Act.

“This administration is over the top,” Gordon said.

He believes the environmental community has to counterpunch with clever but aggressive campaigns of its own. Environmentalists sometimes need to be “a little bit over the top to get it back to the middle,” he said.

But Fingerhut noted that membership and fund raising are strong right now, thanks in part to the policies of the Bush administration. Organizations do best, he said, “when there is a devil out there.”

Inspired by John Denver

Gordon’s environmental work, as well as his decision to make Aspen his home, were the result of unlikely combinations of events.

He grew up in New Jersey and New York and was much more interested in sports than the environment. Gordon said he was “oblivious to the stuff that was important.”

He was a business major at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., and ended up getting drafted in the Vietnam-era military, but served in Europe. After he returned to the United States, he tried his hand on Wall Street and learned that wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life.

In the early 1970s he headed west to visit a friend in Denver. That friend encouraged him to head to the mountains to ski. On what was supposed to be a brief ski trip to Aspen, fate stepped in. He ran into a female friend from his college days and decided to stick around.

From there his story follows the typical Aspen line ” he worked a variety of jobs, lived in a variety of places and became enamored with skiing, climbing and conservation.

But this plot has a twist. Gordon had used his Veteran’s Administration benefits to learn to fly before heading west. In 1981, he found the dream job with LightHawk that allowed him to combine his passion for flying with his fierce conservation ethic.

“He’s lucky. He’s doing what he believes in,” said John McBride, a longtime friend of Gordon’s who is involved in a variety of conservation efforts.

He said he supported Gordon’s decision to form EcoFlight because LightHawk “got too big for its britches.” McBride, also a pilot, said he believes taking people up in the air to add perspective to environmental debates “is the best idea in the world.”

In Gordon’s cluttered office at the Aspen Airport Business Center there are several photos of John Denver on the walls. One that stands out shows Denver talking to the Dalai Lama at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

While working with LightHawk, Gordon befriended Denver. “He was an inspiration to me, as a friend and as someone who convinced me you could make a difference,” Gordon said.

Eyes of the movement

Denver was involved in a variety of conservation efforts. As Gordon learned about environmental issues by scouting from the air, he would share the results with Denver. Gordon is convinced Denver was poised to play a bigger role in drawing national attention to environmental issues when he died in an airplane crash in October 1997. He was working on a series of PBS television documentaries when he was killed.

“He was going to be a voice for the environment,” said Gordon.

Gordon might not have the clout to be the voice for the movement, but he’s definitely the eyes. He estimated he spends 300 to 350 hours per year flying people over lands involved in environmental debates.

In addition to educating elected officials and stirring citizen interest with the flights, Gordon also works with local schools to enliven environmental issues for students.

Last year, during the heated debate over the Bush administration’s Healthy Forest Initiative, Gordon brought a logger, an environmentalist and a firefighting expert together to discuss their perspectives with students from the Aspen and Glenwood Springs high schools and the Yampa Mountain School. Similar discussions have been held regarding oil and gas exploration and whether more public lands should receive wilderness designation.

Each time, Gordon recruited local volunteer pilots to fly students over lands in question.

He feels it’s important to work with kids because they are the future decision makers on land-stewardship issues. He calls his work with kids the Kestrel Project, named after a small, powerful, quick falcon.

He’s proud of the unique angle he’s introduced into conservation issues by letting people view the magnificent outdoors from the air.

“I really think you have to make a connection with people,” he said. “For many people, it’s a spiritual connection. For me, it is.”

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is


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