Pilot Bruce Gordon banks his Cessna Turbo Centurion II six-seater over Rifle’s small airstrip and frowns. The air space just to the north, over the dramatic Roan Plateau, is socked in like a wet wool blanket. Visibility: zero.

For Gordon, this isn’t just a navigational problem. As the founder and president of EcoFlight, a small nonprofit organization partly funded by the Hewlett Foundation’s Environment Program, he has a problem of persuasion. Some people persuade with words. This pilot’s polemical tool of choice is letting people see for themselves.

“Ranchers, hunters, politicians. . . I love getting them in my ‘office’ 10,000 feet above the ground for a debate,” said Gordon the night before. “People see things that don’t jibe with what they believed.”

Giving people that 10,000-foot perspective is the heart of EcoFlight’s work. What Gordon has dubbed “conservation flying” is the only way for someone truly to understand the scale of changes wrought by actions like western oil and gas extraction, clear-cutting of forests in the Pacific Northwest, or climate change-induced beetle infestations in Yellowstone National Park. Or like the natural gas development proposed for western Colorado’s pristine Roan Plateau.

The small, Aspen-based nonprofit – it’s just Gordon and his office manager and partner, Jane Pargiter – occupies a singular niche in a world largely preoccupied with lobbying for and against regulations, arguing science, forming coalitions, and battling big business. He’s flown governors, county commissioners, and sixth-generation ranchers, mountain bikers, and hunters – people of every occupation and political persuasion – all with the presumption that seeing is believing.

“My mission is to inspire other people to see the big picture and to understand what they are seeing,” says Gordon. He follows up the flights with written materials that provide context about the locations and issues his passengers have just seen, as well as offers to get involved in different ways. “You can see the ‘aha’ moment when people get up there and get some perspective.”

“Old Boys with a Tear in Their Eye”

Hal Harvey, the former director of the Hewlett Foundation’s Environment Program, himself from a Colorado ranching family and a longtime friend of Gordon’s, says he’s seen that moment more than once on EcoFlight trips.

“EcoFlight has helped make the situation much clearer for some third- and fourth-generation ranchers in Colorado,” says Harvey, now chief executive officer of ClimateWorks, a nonprofit organization working to curb global warming. “After aerial tours of devastated landscape, some of these old boys land with a tear in their eye. People are scared by what they see. And outraged.”

Among those who share that outrage is Tweeti Blancett, a sixth-generation cattle rancher from Aztec, New Mexico, near Four Corners, and former head of the local George W. Bush 2000 election campaign. For nearly three centuries, Blancett’s family has grazed cattle on seventeen square miles of land that they, the federal Bureau of Land Management, and the state now own. It once ran 600 cattle on those 35,000 acres. Today, she says, thanks to drilling for natural gas and the attendant destruction of grazing lands, that number is down to 100 cows, and she fears even the family’s 400 acres is beyond saving.

“We’re not going to fix our problems,” says Blancett, whose ranch and surrounding public lands are home to more than 500 active gas wells, each site and access road taking three acres of grazing land. “It’s too far gone. But we can say, ‘Let’s not do this throughout the whole West.'”

Blancett says Gordon’s flights have been essential to her seeing the full impact of gas exploration on her land and elsewhere and helping her show it to others.

“The area around my ranch isn’t flat,” she says by way of example. “It’s high canyons and deep valleys. When the land is fractured from gas drilling pads and the roads that lead to them, it causes run-off and erosion. But you can’t get the big picture from any one place on the ground. Pictures from Bruce’s flights over the West have helped us see what we’re really dealing with.”

That inability to see even part of the impact of development and environmental degradation from the ground is a common story. Energy companies routinely block access to roads that would allow people to drive past development, and lumber companies often leave what are derisively known as “beauty strips” along roads to obscure the effects of clear-cutting of forests.

Science by Serendipity

Other revelations from flying over natural landscapes come unexpectedly, as when EcoFlight’s Pargiter snapped a picture over Yellowstone that revealed bark beetle infestations of white bark pines in locations where scientists surveying for this byproduct of climate change had not before seen it.

For Gordon, now 64, the seeds of EcoFlight were planted in the 1980s, when he assisted in an alpine helicopter rescue near Aspen and decided to use Veterans Affairs benefits to attend flight school so that he might become a search-and-rescue pilot.

Instead, he became a pilot with Lighthawk, another Hewlett Foundation grant recipient and one of the first conservation flying services. Gordon stayed with Lighthawk until its legion of volunteer pilots grew so large that he found himself manning a desk more often than a cockpit, and decided it was time to strike out on his own.

These days, EcoFlight is on call to support environmental groups that have an issue coming to a head, media ride-alongs, and scientific field research, among other missions. When Tom Steinbach, the current director of Hewlett’s Environment Program, hired Peggy Duxbury to be a new program officer working on grants to preserve western lands, one of the first things he did was call on Gordon to take Duxbury up to see the lay of the land.

Gordon and Pargiter also run an education program that offers school-age children and young adults the chance to discuss a local environmental issue with experts and then take flights to see that issue in the real world. The roundtable forums are organized in collaboration with area teachers and school systems and strive to present all sides of a given environmental issue fairly, Gordon says.

With the acceleration of oil and gas development since 2001, Gordon says he’s seen a shift in public sentiment. “Today, I can’t fly thirty miles in any direction without seeing what’s happened to the western landscape over the past eight years,” he says. “Over that time, we’ve seen fragmentation and industrialization on a scale I’ve never seen before.

“After being battered around for years with more and more intrusions on their land and public lands, people in the West are realizing that it’s not just all about putting money in the pockets of local citizens today. It’s about long-term stewardship of the land.”

* * *

Back at the Rifle airstrip, where Gordon has landed the Cessna, the storm over the Roan Plateau has moved south, and the air above it has miraculously cleared.

In the far distance, the plateau rises 3,500 feet above the neighboring Grand Valley. Considered one of the most biologically diverse regions in Colorado, it has become something of a poster child for the battle between the oil and gas industry and an alliance of hunters, anglers, conservation groups, and local landowners who are fighting to keep the remaining two-thirds of the top of the plateau – 52,000 acres – free of gas exploration and development. More than half of what the Bureau of Land Management calls the Roan Plateau Planning Area is owned outright or leased by oil and gas companies.

Joining Gordon on this flight are a Hewlett Foundation staffer, the local county tax assessor, a retired employee from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and a local building contractor.

As Gordon approaches the plateau, at its base we see what the top might look like if efforts to protect it fail. A vista of gas drilling pads, each with a road leading to a cleared cul-de-sac and topped with drilling equipment, ring the high ground like a necklace. At one point, as the plane bisects the high ground and adjacent valley, a “before and after” study comes into view, with pads to the left like an encroaching industrial suburb and virgin wilderness to the right.

And what a wilderness.  Rolling stands of fall-yellow aspen forests flock steep mountainsides in alternating patterns of sun and shade. Meandering trout streams etch the low points of some of the canyons below. Somewhere unseen is the 200-foot Fork Falls of Parachute Creek, one of the tallest in Colorado. Mingled with the stands of aspen are serviceberry, sagebrush, and grassy meadows, home to elk, black bear, and other big game.

“There’s so much no one really knows about down there,” says Gordon over our headphones.

“I’m not a preservationist. I know you can’t save everything,” he admits. “But there is a right way and a wrong way to do development. I know when I see something worth saving.”

You can see more videos and photos from EcoFlight on Vimeo and Flickr: