A sky-high view of the earth’s scars
September 26, 2005
(Editor’s note: In early September, pilot Bruce Gordon of Aspen-based EcoFlight took three teenagers on from Colorado, Wyoming and Montana on a flight over the West to show them areas of environmental concern. The annual program is designed to get kids involved in environmental issues, and participants are asked to write about their experience.)As we teeter along 1,000 feet above the ground in a six-seat Cessna 210 aircraft, Bruce Gordon, the pilot, opens the window. As I’m blasted against my seat with air, I have visions of being sucked out of the airplane and thrown to a bloody death below. This, fortunately, does not happen, as we are only flying at 120 mph and he has only cleared the way for a snapshot of an open-pit phosphate mine. In between moments like these and the occasional candy bar, I have been observing the forward march of industrial development in the Rocky Mountain West. From the Roan Plateau to the Green River Basin, from Yellowstone to the Gallatin Mountains, three students from the West (including me) have been taken on a three-day tour by EcoFlight, a nonprofit organization that gives people a chance to see this landscape from small aircraft. As a young adult, it would be difficult to participate in such a tour without experiencing a significant shift in worldview. From the ground, one cannot take in the true expansiveness of roads, mines and gas wells springing up in formerly pristine areas. The ability to explore these areas in the third dimension gives one a sense of how the grizzly bear or the bald eagle must experience wilderness (minus the nausea induced by the sudden dips Bruce takes to get a better view of the gas wells).Along the way we meet with various experts and press to discuss the issues. Lance Craighead of the Craighead Environmental Research Institute explains why more than double the present amount of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are necessary for a genetically viable population to thrive perpetually. Michael Scott of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition gives us examples of the pitfalls of imposing political boundaries on natural landscapes. Clare Bastable of the Colorado Mountain Club discusses with us the negative impacts of proposed gas development projects on the Roan Plateau. During ensuing conversations we try to identify the trends in western development and pinpoint the proximate and ultimate causes of its acceleration. During our whirlwind tour of six Western states, this much becomes painfully apparent: although the public is clearly united on certain issues of conservation (2.5 million comments in favor of the 2001 Roadless Rule), the public process is becoming increasingly marginalized from land management decisions at the behest of an increasingly small number of managers. The men and women we conversed with during our trip are some of the strongest and most visible voices for conservation in the West. (Bruce adds a welcome touch of color with the entertaining expletives he drops throughout our tour of gas wells on the Roan Plateau.) These inspiring figures and a handful of large donors to conservation and education organizations form the core resistance to unfettered industrial development of the West. Many others, Olaus and Mardy Murie, Edward Abbey and John Denver, to name a few, have passed on. Today, not only is there a deaf ear turned to public outcry over wild Western land development, there is a conspicuous silence among young people with regards to issues of wilderness and land preservation. One purpose of EcoFlight’s mission is to kindle a fire in the hearts of those who may not have a rich history of experience to draw on when expressing their thoughts about Western lands. It seems to me that we are in the midst of a turning point. It is becoming clear to the public that the Bush administration’s mission is at odds with the will of most Americans, and with the well-being of the natural communities of the West. The invasion and occupation of Iraq, the shameful response to Hurricane Katrina, and the systematic attempt to dismantle 30 years of environmental protections are watermarks of a flood of poor leadership in an administration beholden to industry. We are under the illusion that we are led by these people. The truth is that they work for us. It is my hope that my fellow youth keep this in mind when they see the most biologically rich land in the country being torn up for short-term interests. When we finally arrive back in Aspen, our starting point, we stretch our bodies out and decide that this has indeed been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As we each return to our respective homes, we bring with us memories of the dynamic and interrelated components of nature that we could never hope to see all at once from the ground. We also bring with us the images of industrial development, development that contributes a drop in the bucket to our actual quality of life, but that will leave scars on the land for decades to come, some that will never truly heal. These memories will surely change the way we look at the world and make us think harder about any decision that may influence wild lands. Nick Bayard is a recent high school graduate from Jackson Hole, Wyo.