The thrill of victory and agony of defeat witnessed by Aspen-based conservation group
January 11, 2018
EcoFlight's staff has experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat numerous times in its endeavors with more than 300 other conservation groups.
It's helped preserve roadless forests from oil and gas development and helped stave off mining on lands just outside spectacular national parks.
On the other hand, it saw 15 years of hard work to help create the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah get wiped out, for now, by a swipe of President Donald Trump's pen.
"What this guy has done is remarkable in many ways," said EcoFlight founder and executive director Bruce Gordon, also one of the pilots. He didn't mean it as a compliment.
“No bad idea seems to go away. So many of these things don’t have closure.”
— Bruce Gordon, EcoFlight
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Sometimes EcoFlight's work getting policy makers and journalists in the air to view an environmental issue isn't black and white in terms of victory or defeat. When the Gold King Mine wastewater spilled into the Animas River in southwestern Colorado in 2015, EcoFlight scrambled to get take and share some of the first images of the extent of the disaster. It also reached out to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to get him into the air for a broader perspective so he could influence the federal government's response.
Following are a just handful of the memorable victories and painful defeats. EcoFlight's website, http://www.ecoflight.org, is packed with information on its projects, sorted by issues and states.
•Thompson Divide — this one was personal for Gordon. He realized at one point he could fly 30 minutes in any direction from Aspen and see significant environmental impacts from oil and gas development. He wanted to prevent expanded oil and gas extraction from Thompson Divide, west and southwest of Carbondale.
"We started reaching out to every organization we could" to provide flights, he said.
That resulted in dozens of flights for policy makers, journalists, conservationists and elected officials. The work, in conjunction with numerous other organizations, paid off. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management updated plans and protected many of their holdings from expanded exploration. The BLM canceled 25 leases in the area in 2016. Still, 40 leases were preserved.
•Black Thunder Mine — the BLM blocked four leases that would allow coal mining to continue at the Black Thunder and Antelope Rochelle mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. EcoFlight provided several flights to examine the extent of the mines and fugitive dust from coal waste piles. The BLM determined that burning the coal deposits at the mines would add to significantly to U.S. carbon emissions.
•Rocky Mountain Front in Montana — EcoFlight provided flights that helped forge an unlikely coalition of sportsmen, ranchers, environmentalists and elected official to prevent oil and gas development in a biologically rich area south of Glacier National Park. Gordon recalled flying north to show how oil and gas development had carved up similar forestlands in Canada.
Gordon isn't convinced all victories will remain in place, particularly with the current administration embrace of resource extraction from public lands.
"No bad idea seems to go away," he said. "So many of these things don't have closure."
That was the painful lesson when Trump announced last month he was shrinking the size of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. EcoFlight got involved years ago when conservationists launched an effort to lobby for extra protections for the spectacular canyon country that houses thousands of Native American artifacts on Cedar Mesa.
"We called them up and said, 'What can we do to draw attention?'" said EcoFlight vice president Jane Pargiter.
The organization also played a critical role in getting representatives of the Native American tribes and the rock climbing community together. Climbers felt they were shut out of the planning process for Bears Ears.
EcoFlight and its conservation allies aren't giving up on the monument status. The tribes and some environmental groups have filed litigation to block Trump's action.
Gordon said the biggest heartbreak he has witnessed in his decades of conservation from the cockpit was seeing Trump win election when it appeared an administration with a true conservation ethic would take office.