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Bob Keller of Boonville volunteers dozens of hours of flight time to environmental organizations via LightHawk.  Photo: David Sommerstein (Aerial support for photos provided by LightHawk)
Bob Keller of Boonville volunteers dozens of hours of flight time to environmental organizations via LightHawk. Photo: David Sommerstein (Aerial support for 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, not human 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 organization Lighthawk has been bringing together volunteer pilots and environmental causes.

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Keller has flown missions over the Five Ponds wilderness and Cranberry Lake on behalf of the Adirondack Council. Photo: David Sommerstein

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David Sommerstein
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This story first aired in August 2011.

I arrive at the teeny Potsdam airfield as a single-engine Cessna swoops onto the runaway and rolls to a stop. Pilot Bob Keller squeezes out and stretches. An athletic-looking man with a full moustache, he’s a retired financial planner from Boonville, and now a volunteer for LightHawk. Keller’s also a birder and loves the outdoors, and during our flight he identifies a Northern Harrier that he says “loves farm fields and airports”, and several other birds.

From the air, you can see how different parts of the region fit together. This photo shows Long Lake looking towards the High Peaks. Photo: David Sommerstein
From the air, you can see how different parts of the region fit together. This photo shows Long Lake looking towards the High Peaks. Photo: David Sommerstein
His mission today is to fly me and one other reporter over the Tug Hill Plateau. Every time Keller takes someone into the air for LightHawk, it costs him about 200 dollars an hour. He says it’s a worthwhile donation: “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.”

Headsets on with air traffic chatter in our ears, we taxi down the runway. Keller scans left and right, and identifies a bird that he says is either 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 areas”, he says. “It’s hard to really grasp how big this area really is without flying over it.”


Why protect the environment? A view from above

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.

Blue Mountain Lake. "It just enhances the majesty," says Keller. Photo: David Sommerstein
Blue Mountain Lake. "It just enhances the majesty," says Keller. Photo: David Sommerstein
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. Tucker says a great deal is evident from the air that you can’t see on the ground. “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.

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. He says flying above the Adirondacks, you can see how wild the park really is.

“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.”

I said, so how did it look to you? And he went, wow, I didn't realize it was so vast.
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 Fine Town 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.

Hall says he doesn’t know if his LightHawk flight changed anything, but it certainly gave him a different perspective. 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.”


“It just enhances the sense of majesty.”

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

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.

 

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