Conservation From Above

Our Cessna 210 takes off between two gas drilling rigs standing sentinel over the end of the runway at the small airport in Rifle, Colorado. “I am always a little worried about those when the weather is marginal,” says our pilot, Bruce Gordon, founder of the conservation flying organization EcoFlight.

I have come along on the flight with Gordon and two wildlife specialists from the State of Colorado to get a view of energy development on the Roan Plateau. The Roan has become a heated battleground in the fight over public lands and energy policy. Gordon knows the area well. He swoops over drilling rigs wedged into hidden canyons and small herds of elk huddled between rigs on the remote plateau, giving us a matchless view of the impacts of the gas industry on one of the largest herds of migratory elk in the world.

“I have flown all across the Intermountain West from southern New Mexico to Canada, and it is the same issue—oil and gas drilling,” he says. “The industry gets in, and before people know what is going on it is out of hand.”

Gas fields dissect Colorado’s Roan Plateau © EcoFlight

Gordon has been a pilot for conservation groups since the 1970s, and he formed the Aspen, Colorado-based EcoFlight in 2002. EcoFlight raises awareness of the mounting threats to western public lands by taking decision-makers, stakeholders, the press, students and members of the public up for aerial tours of environmental hotspots, giving them a chance to literally see the big picture.

Gordon says that once people are in the air, the land speaks for itself and that “conversion experiences’ are common on his flights.

“During the 1980s, I did a lot of flying related to logging in the Pacific Northwest,” says Gordon. “I had these rough, tough loggers in the cockpit with me—these are guys who had spent their lives trying to cut down as many trees as they could. They started crying when they saw the extent of the damage logging had caused to the forests.”

Colorado gas rig © Andrew Gulliford

More recently, Gordon took an NBC film crew up for a view of a copper smelter in Arizona that was suspected of generating acid rain and causing health problems in the region. When he flew the crew near the plume coming from the smelter, the entire crew became sick. “I am certain that experience changed their view of the story,” says Gordon. “Sometimes, it is all about perspective.”