Seeing the Big Picture in the American West

When I reached pilot Bruce Gordon back in October, he was still trying to clean up from a black bear break-in at the cabin he's lived in for 30 years in the mountains outside Vail, Colorado. "I don't know when it got in, but it really wrecked the place," Bruce said. "The refrigerator is totally ruined." Such break-ins might be considered one of the many occupational hazards for a man who spends so few nights at home, a man whose real home is in the cockpit of his 1978 Cessna 210, high in the vast Western sky. N761XE over Colorado
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
Bruce Gordon runs Eco-Flight, a bare-bones non-profit that consists almost entirely of himself, his partner, South Africa-born Jane Pargiter, and their single, six seater plane. The motto of Eco-Flight is simple: "We put people in high places." Over the past 20 years Bruce has flown hundreds of conservationists, reporters, interested citizens and policy-makers over Western landscapes that are facing major changes, areas proposed for protection or undergoing logging and mining or energy development, watersheds, wildlife winter ranges and migration corridors. September, 2011 forest fire in Horse Creek near Dubois, WY
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
The goal is simple: to try to understand the changes by viewing the landscape as a whole. "There is nothing like seeing a place from 10,000 feet to get a feel for what is actually happening there," he said to me, on our first trip together. "This business is about transparency, about letting people see what is happening, and letting them decide what they think about it." The Cane Creek Potash Mine, near Moab Utah
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
I'm proud to claim Bruce as a friend, and I thought that readers of the Conservationist might like to get to know a fellow outdoorsman who lives the kind of nomadic, no-frills life of adventure that harkens back to a wilder, freer, time in the West. Whitebark, Bozeman, Montana
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
He is not an easy man to catch--he might be flying the Otero Mesa in New Mexico one day, and landing in the tiny airport at Malta, Montana, the next, looking for a ride to town for a room and a bite to eat. Next week, he might be in Central America. Grand Canyon Uranium Mine
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
Field & Stream: How did you get into this life and this career? Gordon: I was drafted in 1967, and spent two years in ops and intelligence in the Army, without ever getting on the ground in Vietnam. When I got out, the VA paid for me to get my commercial pilot's training. Pinebeetle devastation in the Greater Yellowstone EcoSystem
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
I spent a lot of years working on mountain rescue around Aspen, taught skiing and outdoor education, coached soccer, those kinds of jobs. Went to the Himalaya for a 1974 exploration of the Southwest Face of Makalu, and then stayed over there for quite awhile. Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem - White Bark Pine
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
Back in Colorado, a friend asked me if I had ever seen the copper smelter down in Arizona, and we flew down there to look at it. This was right at the time of a lot of debates about pollution and logging, and I wanted to know, really know, what those debates were about. DuNoir valley fire smoke, SNF
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
Field & Stream: And what did you learn? Gordon: The perspective from the air--all that smoke--changed my mind. Later, when the spotted owl debate was raging, we flew up there around Forks (Washington). From above, we could see where the timber companies were leaving these scenic buffers, bands of timber, so that from the roads everything looked fine. N761XE over Colorado
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
But once you were in the air, you could see the extent of the clearcutting, it was incredible. But more important, you could see the erosion, just pouring off of the clearcuts and destroying those rivers. There was no way to understand it except from the air. That is how I came up with the idea for what we call "conservation flying." Shiprock Smog from Coal Combustion
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
Field & Stream: More recently, you've been flying a lot of the energy development across the West. What are the similarities? Gordon: It's the same. You have all this energy development, and all these effects downstream, or downslope, and then when you look for the cause of those effects, you find a series of locked gates. Grand Canyon Uranium Mine
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
We're not against energy development--we're out there using aviation fuel to do what we do. We're not interested in heated debates, or pros and cons. It's just about letting people see what's happening. Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
To have all of this development hidden away is not good for the debate. If we are advocates for anything, it's for people having an informed voice, for people knowing what they are talking about. Natural gas development along the Colorado River below the Roan Plateau.
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
And it could be anything. A lot of our work lately has been flying over the huge die-off of whitebark pines, and looking at the extent of that and what affect it is having. Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
Field & Stream: You've seen some of the best country the West has to offer, I'd imagine. Gordon: I've flown all over. Across the Atlantic to Botswana. Central America and Mexico, down the Baja to count gray whales. The Cane Creek Potash Mine, near Moab Utah
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
And some of the most impressive country I've ever seen is in the American West. That Otero Mesa was a new experience for me. The Rocky Mountain Front in Montana has to be one of the most intact landscapes of its kind anywhere in the world. I never get tired of it. Ecoflight plane on the Flight Across America educational program flies over a uranium mine on the outskirts of the Grand Canyon.
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
Shiprock Smog from Coal Combustion
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
Wyoming - Jonah Oil and Gas
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
Colorado, Walden, North Park - Oil and Gas
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight
Colorado, Walden, North Park - Oil and Gas
Photo: Courtesy of Eco-Flight