POR Bruce Gordon March 22, 2009
ASPEN — Peering down on a landscape threatened with change, Bruce Gordon is flying to make a difference.
It may be the Roan Plateau, the desert southwest, a mine site in Alaska or a jungle forest in Belize, but if there is a lesson to be learned, Gordon will be there, flying overhead like a shuttle working a loom in his red, white and blue Cessna 210.
“When I moved to Aspen 40 years ago, I knew I wanted to make a difference,” said Gordon, bundled against the mid-winter chill in multi-pocketed flight pants, white zip turtleneck and bulky down-filled jacket. “But I knew it had to be something effective. I wanted the land to speak for itself.”
Drafted into the Army (operations and intelligence) during the Vietnam era, Gordon used his veterans’ benefits to attend flight school.
He soon discovered Michael Stewart, one of the first conservation pilots, who in 1979 founded Lighthawk, now based in Lander, Wyo.
Stewart’s idea was to take to the air, giving politicians, conservationists, sportsmen and local citizens the opportunity to see first-hand what was happening on their public lands.
“He combined his love for the environment with his love for flying, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Gordon said.
Lighthawk’s message was spot-on and the volunteer-driven organization grew in scope and size — grew so much, in fact, it outgrew Michael Stewart and eventually outgrew Bruce Gordon.
“Lighthawk grew to about 100 volunteer pilots and I started to feel lost, as well as concerned the organization was losing its focus,” Gordon said.
So he branched out and started EcoFlight, which since its inception 20 years ago has remained a one-man air show except for occasional flights piloted by a few handpicked and highly trusted pilots.
That’s not to ignore Jane Pargiter, Gordon’s South African-born office manager and life partner. She deftly handles many of the office projects that Bruce hasn’t time for, including scheduling interviews, flights and lunchtime ski treks up Snowmass Mountain.
Pargiter’s feet are on the ground while Gordon’s heart is in the skies.
“I use my plane to educate and advocate for the landscape,” Gordon said. “Someone needs to speak for the lands and sometimes it’s a voice you can best hear from the air.”
In recent years, Gordon has used that lofty perch to advocate for wilderness areas, illuminate the environmental damage from unfettered logging or energy development and to offer public officials the rare opportunity to see the connections in broad landscapes of natural resources.
“I want to bring additional information you cannot get from the ground,” Gordon said. “You can take someone up like (Sen.) Mark Udall (D-Colorado), for example. He can fly with sportsmen’s coalitions and talk to them and all of a sudden he can see the Roan Plateau is not just the little Roan Plateau.
“Once in the air, you can see forever the impacts on the landscape of the Roan and the Piceance (Basin) and the industrialization of that land. You never see that from (Interstate) 70.”
Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, frequently uses EcoFlight to open landscape views that augment his group’s work on the ground.
“In the public lands advocacy work we do, we spend a lot of time trying to paint pictures with our words or displaying maps so people can grasp the issues we work on,” Shoemaker said.
“But often it’s not until you get people in the sky, where they are to look horizon to horizon to see how landscapes connect, can you open their eyes.
“EcoFlight provides that opportunity to see the big picture. That often makes or breaks the success of the work we do.”
Gordon doesn’t simply preach to the choir, he’s not shy about being stuck in the five-seater plane with some pro-development forces.
“Oh, we target many people and organizations who do not particularly agree with us,” said Gordon, listing such groups as Young Republicans from New Mexico, faith-based groups and sportsmen’s organizations not always on the side of conservation.
“But many times after our flights they have what I call ‘convergence experiences,’ ” Gordon said. “Hopefully, people will get a look at the scale and then make a decision.
“I try to be open-minded and balanced in my approach and I encourage everyone who flies with me to be balanced and open.”
Years ago, his mission was dubbed an “Environmental Air Force” by then-Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth.
Gordon still enjoys the label.
“I always thought it was apt because you’re not only a force in the air but you’re also supporting the troops on the ground,” he said.
Over the past 30 years, Gordon has seen environmental causes shift focus but never lose importance, from the early days of the Endangered Species Act and the Colorado wilderness legislation to today’s attempts to find balance with increased demands for energy development.
“It seems no bad idea ever goes away,” he said with a laugh. “You have victories and stays of execution but it’s amazing to me how many times issues come around before you again and again.
“The issues surrounding conservation are not unlike the politics of our country: Things seem to go back and forth and back and forth, but I believe we do slowly make progress.”
It’s not surprising that in this sluggish economy nonprofits such as EcoFlight are concerned about retaining their funding from donations and grants.
Gordon and Pargiter devote much of their energy to fund-raising, also something else that’s often best done from the air.
“When you actually go up and see the land itself, it tends to get you engaged about the issues,” Gordon said. “I think the people who fund these issues are my biggest heroes. They are the people who put their money where their mouth is.”
Chris Hunt of Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen Conservation Project has used Gordon’s flight services several times in the past two years.
“For us, the power of seeing some thing from 1,000 or 500 feet high is unequalled,” said Hunt, who has flown over the Roan Plateau and proposed wilderness areas near Durango.
“When you’re on the ground you really can’t see the forest for the trees but once you get above it you can see what’s at stake.”
Gordon finds no shortage of worthy causes but he works at staying small, to be hard-hitting and focused. He still has virtually the same lifestyle he adopted 40 years ago, living as cheaply as possible in order to keep EcoFlight up in the air.
“I’ve not needed a lot of money, I have a lifestyle that doesn’t need it, but at the same time
I’ve missed a lot,” he said. “But what we do has appealed to many people and the relationships I’ve built up have been incredibly generous and understanding.”
One of those relationships is with Jane Pargiter, who started with EcoFlight in 2003 and now is the office manager and “co-pilot” in Gordon’s life. She has two daughters, ages 11 and 14, and being involved with a family has given Gordon new impetus to further develop his Kestrel Program for high school-age youths.
“Years ago when I was flying all these politicians, I was wondering. ‘How can I make a change in the future?’ ” Gordon said. “So I started talking to young adults about certain issues and taking them up and letting them look at the habitat and see some of the challenges.”
He finishes those flights with an on-the-ground round-table discussion featuring local politicians, conservation groups, sportsmen and others.
“I saw kids really started getting involved,” he said.
He also would like to continue his Flight Across America project, which he designed with his friend, the late John Denver.
This involves flying around different states, looking at local issues and letting young adults, high school to college age, see the landscape, become better informed and then letting the youths write editorials, hold press conferences and gain insight into dealing publicly with environmental issues.
“We focus on specific issues and we find these students become very empowered,” he said.
EcoFlight also is utilizing Internet technology, videoing flights and offering photos and virtual air tours on http://www.ecoflight.info and through public sites such as YouTube.
Later, standing next to his plane on the runway at Aspen airport, Gordon ogled a few corporate jets sitting nearby and pondered the future.
“Conservation flying can help people see how they affect the world and what might be possible solutions,” he offered. “What we try to bring back is these images and these thoughts and let you translate them into action. It helps to bring bigger issues into perspective.”
As he climbed into his 9-year-old car, crammed with his mountain-rescue equipment and Rip, Pargiter’s Border Terrier, he pondered the gray sky.
“I really think we need a dramatic change in the way we are heading or we’re going to end up where we’re heading,” he said. “Amory Lovins (founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute) called it ‘applied hope.’ But it’s not just hope, it’s rolling up your sleeves and working for the common good. There’s no hope without hard work.”