Come fly with me

In OK, I admit I may have had impure intentions. When the phone rang a few weeks ago and the voice on the other end introduced himself as the local head of the Weminuche Group of the Sierra Club and asked it if I wanted to serve as token press member on an environmental, fact-finding flying mission, my first thought was: free flight.

So, naturally, I accepted.

See, if there’s one thing journalists like, it’s free stuff. Perhaps it stems from being on the lower end of the career food chain, right above telemarketers and snake-oil salesmen. As a result, we horde all free shwag that comes our way – figuring we are rightfully entitled to at least some perks. Coffee mugs, T-shirts, books, CDs, beer, calendars, concert tickets – we’ll take it all. I once engulfed an entire box of free Russell Stover chocolate-covered marshmallow graham Easter bunnies, not because I was hungry but because they came to me and, by golly, the world owed me those damn bunnies.

Of course, this is the sort of thing journalism professors and editors abhor. From the first days of Newbie Reporting 101, it is pounded into aspiring writers’ heads that accepting any free gift – whether it be a Bic pen or a Rolex – is a no-no. The problem isn’t so much the gift itself as the strings attached – real or perceived. See, although you happily affix that “California Prune” bottle opener to your keychain, you really have no intention of writing a story on the benefits of prunes. Hypothetically, this creates two dilemmas: 1) People who see the key chain will think you are in cahoots with the National Dried Plum Advisory Board and be forever suspicious of any story you write on the topic, and 2) The poor folks at the N.D.P.A.B. will have wasted all their hard-earned prune bottle openers on free-loading sods such as yourself.

Instead, all freebies are to be collected in a box and, at the end of the year, given to the orphanage.

Of course, the first day out of J-School, this flies out the window. Most writers then devote their efforts to trying to conceal the evidence – or quickly eat or drink it – so as to keep it from their superiors. Fortunately for me, there is no superior to report to, in which case I defer to what my mother taught me: Turning down an invitation is rude. Especially if said invitation costs the average Joe $150 an hour.

Besides, I was a bona-fide, card-carrying member of the Sierra Club back in ’96. It was perfectly plausible that my name had been drawn from a random pool of AWOL former clubbers as part of an outreach campaign. Of course, as I took my seat in the cozy six-seater, I knew the odds of the hand of fate zapping me out of the sky with a lightning bolt for entertaining such a lie were about 50-50.

Just then, our pilot, Dick Arnold, of Telluride, came over the two-way radio headset. For the last 15 years, Arnold had been flying for Lighthawks, a group of pilots that helps environmental groups by providing fly-overs of endangered, sensitive or damaged areas. The group flies all over the hemisphere, from the rocky shores of the Pacific Northwest to covert pig farms in Alabama to rain forests in Mesoamerica. He informed us of that morning’s mission, which would be nowhere near as exotic or odiferous: a tour of the Missionary Ridge burn area to view the proposed logging sites; followed by a jaunt to the Weminuche to survey Emerald Lake, the proposed site of a high-alpine dam; and finally a trip over Ridges Basin, future home of the Animas-La Plata reservoir.

He closed his monologue by informing us of his credentials: he was a flight instructor with 35 years of experience and more than 6,000 hours under his belt. “You’re in good hands,” he said.

Just to be sure, I tightened my lap belt and put the barf bags within close proximity. As the small single prop sputtered to life on about the fifth attempt, I decided to make amends for my selfish free-loading ways, which could only help improve my survival odds. For starters, I resisted any wisecracks about in-flight movies and free peanuts. I decided that rather than serving as the opportunistic ballast in the back of the plane (whose role always coincides with being the odd man out once it’s discovered there aren’t enough parachutes), I would make the best of my time aboard. For the next hour, my role would be to listen, learn and most importantly, look. I would serve as proxy for the inquiring minds of my readers and citizens of this vast, beautiful area, offering a firsthand account of the state of our public lands, past, present and future.

Here are some highlights of what I saw (cue “This Land is Your Land”):

l The Missionary Ridge burn area is very large.

l Although many trees in the burn area are crisp shells of their former selves, there are many that are still very much alive, as well as green undergrowth flourishing throughout.

l Road cuts leave scars across the hillsides, including deep rivulets on either side (visible even from hundreds of feet in the air) which are presumably caused by water erosion.

l A clear-cut that took place on the national forest some 30 years ago, as pointed out by co-passenger Jeff Berman, of Colorado Wild, was still exactly that.

l Emerald Lake is aptly named.

l There are absolutely no remnants of early September’s snowfall in the San Juans. I don’t care how long you hike or how much you’re jonesing – there are no turns to be had (unless you’re one of those freakish types built like a billy goat who can glissade on your size 13 Vasque’s.)

l From high above the Weminuche Wilderness, one can see Durango, Pagosa Springs, Utah and an impressive brown haze emanating from the general direction of the San Juan Power Plant.

l The Animas River is a fine-looking, robust, free flowing river.

l The pumping station for A-LP is an ugly, gaping hole in the earth. Ridges Basin is a picturesque gap that will soon be filled with Animas River water.

l Speaking of gaping, if you have not yet done so at the local resident aspen population, now would be the time.

Once again, these are merely conclusions drawn from my own personal observations. What you make of them is purely up to you.

Consider it a gift.

-Missy Votel




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