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Bob Keller of Boonville volunteers dozens of hours of flight time to environmental organizations via LightHawk.  [Aerial support for these photos provided by LightHawk.]
Bob Keller of Boonville volunteers dozens of hours of flight time to environmental organizations via LightHawk. [Aerial support for these photos provided by LightHawk.]

Giving environmental issues a bird's eye view

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Environmental issues can be tough to convey to the public and to policymakers because they're landscape-scale. Flying high above, say, a forest, a factory, or a wetlands complex can give better perspective.

But few environmental groups can afford to pay for private flights. For 30 years, the not-for-profit Lighthawk has been bringing together volunteer pilots and environmental causes. David Sommerstein has this profile of the organization.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

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I arrive at the teeny Potsdam airfield as a single-engine Cessna swoops onto the runaway and rolls to a stop.

Lemme get out here…[clunk]

Pilot Bob Keller squeezes out and stretches.

[big sigh] DAVID: “How’s the flight down?” A little cloudy here, more cloudy than I thought, but we’ll go back under the clouds.

Keller’s from Boonville.  He’s athletic-looking with a full moustache.  He’s a retired financial planner and now a volunteer for Lighthawk. 

His mission today – to fly me and one other reporter over the Tug Hill Plateau.  It’s on behalf of the Tug Hill Commission seeking to sidestep next year’s budget cuts.

Suddenly, Keller oohs and points.

That is a Northern Harrier that loves farm fields and airports and it is flying at low altitude and low elevation back and forth along the fields.

Keller’s a birder and loves the outdoors.  Every time Keller takes someone into the air for Lighthawk, it costs him about 200 dollars an hour – a worthwhile donation, he says.

In order to enjoy the outdoors, you have to try to protect it, so that there’s still places to go that aren’t shopping malls and housing developments.

Potsdam traffic…departing runway 6…[pilot chatter]

Headsets on, we taxi down the runway.  Keller scans left and right.

Oh, there’s a…don’t know if it’s a meadowlark or a bobolink.

Up in the air, we see like a bird, the western Adirondacks settling into the Black River Valley, the emerald green forests of the Tug Hill Plateau climbing up beyond.

Keller’s like a tour guide, pointing out old paper mills, a water bottling plant, the snaking Moose River.

Notice all the horseshoes and curves and all the marshy and swampy area.  It’s hard to really grasp how big this area really is without flying over it.

It can be hard for environmental groups to persuade politicians or potential donors that something’s worth protecting or saving from pollution, without seeing the big picture firsthand.

So much is evident from the air.  It takes a knowledgeable individual to see those things.

Kelley Tucker is the eastern region programs manager for Lighthawk.  The group runs a thousand missions a year on behalf of green groups in 10 countries in North and Central America.

We’ve seen people, not just inspired and their hearts filled, but we’ve seen them come down with enormous amounts of scientific data, very critical imagery, that makes a difference in a board room, in a government office, in a legal decision, and certainly in to the day-to-day decision making.

In addition to the Tug Hill Commission, LightHawk has partnered with the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, several land trusts, and the Adirondack Council.

It gets you high enough in the air that you can actually see how wild the Adirondack Park really is.

Brian Houseal directs the Adirondack Council.  He says the group has used LightHawk flights three times to push forward its effort to create a Bob Marshall Wilderness in the western Adirondacks.

You can climb Mt. Marcy or Mt. Algonquin or some other peak and get a sense of the land just because you’re high up.  In the western part of the Park, we don’t have High Peaks.  What we do have is a lot of water.  So from the plane you can see canoe routes and opportunities to hike and move between the various towns that ring the area as gateways.

Proposals like the Bob Marshall wilderness can be deeply controversial in the Adirondacks, pitting green groups like the Council against local leaders.

Houseal says the Council has brought local officials like town of Fine supervisor Mark Hall aboard Lighthawk flights to see the aerial perspective.

Mark got down on the ground, and I said, so how did it look to you?  And he went, wow, I didn’t realize it was so vast.

The Adirondacks is a lot bigger than we think it is.  There’s a lot of wilderness out there.

Fine Supervisor Mark Hall.

I don’t know if it changes anything.  Just to have a different perspective of it to get up and take a look at it.

Programs manager Kelley Tucker says LightHawk seeks to give stakeholders in an issue a common visual vocabulary for making wise decisions.

We watch that conversation and see where we can help make sure that there’s once again that accurate visual picture in everyone’s head.

I believe that’s Raquette Lake ahead of us.  Probably in the distance is Blue Mountain.

Back aboard Bob Keller’s Cessna, we bank around Blue Mountain, ears popping, stomach a little queasy.  But the view’s unparalled – the mountain, the azure blue lake at its base, camps along the shoreline, the road to Long Lake stretching north.

You can see all the different small lakes and bogs and streams and the drainages.

Keller says his passengers come away with more than just pictures and data. 

You see it from the air, it just enhances the sense of majesty.

It’s that sense of awe that Lighthawk and its partners hope lingers with decision makers long after the plane touches back down.

David Sommerstein, North Country Public Radio, above the Adirondacks.

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