We all have our favorite “little-engine that could” nonprofits—the ones not on most people’s radar, not the Red Cross or UNICEF, but rather the little fellas doing enormous work. My favorite actually has little engines, housed in a few Cessnas, and a few little dogs to boot. EcoFlight is the one for me, not only because they advocate for the natural world and focus on the West—my two great loves—but also because, well, their perspective literally makes my heart pound.
I hate flying. And yet. I love being up in the air with such good people.
Based out of Aspen, this small-but-powerful organization is basically dedicated to the preservation of natural lands through the aerial perspective. Coming up on their 20th anniversary, I wanted to give them a big shoutout, because while they are well-known in some circles, Coloradans seem not to know about this powerhouse for Good.
Basically, they invite politicians and press, scientists and students to fly in small aircraft to get the aerial perspective on all sorts of conservation issues—with education, advocacy, and policy change as the main goal. As Jane Pargiter, executive director (and pilot) told my class recently, “You can look out the left side of the plane, or the right side. Look out both sides. Get the balanced perspective.” As in, EcoFlight tries to bring both sides of the political aisle together, literally crunched side-by-side in a plane, in order to witness situations firsthand, and thereby foster good policies and real change and cooperation. And the aerial perspective makes a huge difference. As Pargiter noted, a person driving on I-70 will see about 12 oil rigs near Rifle; if flying, that same person will see the 2,500 hidden back there.
Started by Bruce Gordon (good friend to the late John Denver, another pilot-conservationist) two decades ago, EcoFlight has flown politicians, conservation groups, media, scientists, and celebrities; they work with 300 conservation groups.
As a reporter, I’ve gone up with EcoFlight twice, once to report on oil and gas flooding in the Front Range during the floods of 2013 for Salon, and once with a student group learning about lands protected by the Wilderness Act. From 1,500 feet above ground, and traveling at 180 mph, and from the window of a small Cessna, I could see the ways landscapes connect, one rise of mountain after another. Snowy mountain ranges, high alpine and high desert, waves of blue mountains, shocking red rocks, the undulations of landscape as it transforms from range to basin and back again—it is all one planet.
I also saw the unbeautiful: the spiderwebs of fracking roads, the missing mountainsides, uranium mines, orange ponds for storing the tailings and dust, clearcuts, the white puffs and yellow haze from coal-fired power plants. A thousand different views of our beautiful West. Before each takeoff, I would close my eyes and cringe, not being an enthusiastic flier. But then I opened my eyes and saw Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming; saw the Navajo Nation, site of the most polluting coal-fired power plant in the nation; the West’s many rivers and diversions, the Roan Plateau of northwest Colorado.
Of particular interest to EcoFlight now is “orphan wells”—wells that have been abandoned by fossil fuel extraction industries, particularly those in the Four Corners area, which are emitting methane and other toxins. EcoFlight is working with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the Bureau of Land Management and the community to identify wells that can be plugged, thereby ensuring remaining toxins don’t further contaminate land and air. According to the American Lung Association, the Four Corners area has one of the highest rates of lung cancer and respiratory problems in the U.S. The smog of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and mercury results in a yellow haze visible from the planes.
Indeed, as they use fuel, EcoFlight is quick to point out that they are “not against oil and gas drilling—but it absolutely has to be done properly, and, in some places, not done at all,” as Pargiter told my students recently. The benefits of flying outweigh the costs, although they are careful to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible, work to minimize flight times, have full flights (five passengers can sit in each small plane), and make sure that every trip is worthwhile.
Another reason they hold a special place in my heart is their positivity and charismatic humor. Each year, for example, they put out a wacky holiday video (which always includes the little dogs) reminding us of the success stories in the West. Last year, lands were restored in the Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah, new rules were put into place to reduce methane pollution in Colorado, and the greater Chaco Canyon region in New Mexico was protected from drilling.
And this affects us all. Seeing the land from above allows for the simple but essential confirmation that the landscape is a whole. Despite the state lines, designations, management agencies, political jurisdictions, roads, and the myriad of ways we delineate our world and ourselves, the planet Earth is the planet Earth, a continuous living thing, a closed system with only so much water and wildness.
Note: The original version of this column erroneously indicated the location of the Roan Plateau. It is in northwest Colorado. The correction was made Feb. 23 at 6:30 p.m.