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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.