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Guest Blog: Lodgepole Project

Buffalo Mountain in Summit County Colorado surrounded by cascading waves of lodgepole pine forests in red phase mountain pine beetle infestation. image: Steven DeWitt/LightHawk

Guest post from LightHawk conservation partner, Steven DeWitt the Eagle County, Colorado photographer behind, The Lodgepole Project which illustrates the historic mountain pine beetle epidemic and explores the human response to the loss of the forests.

I’ve been documenting the destruction of my local lodgepole pine forests for over ten years from a front row seat in the United States’ most visited National Forest - Colorado's White River National Forest. The size and scope of the mountain pine beetle infestation is hard to comprehend, but I’m partnering with LightHawk to create visually impactful aerial images for The Lodgepole Project that help viewers grasp the magnitude of this forest epidemic.

Colorado’s Gore Mountain Range and waves of lodgepole pine forests in red phase mountain pine beetle infestation. image: Steven DeWitt/LightHawk

I’ve had the great fortune to be paired up with veteran LightHawk volunteer pilot and Colorado native Jim Grady. Jim has a red and white 1953 Cessna 180 that looks like a ‘53 Corvette with wings. The camera window opens with a vintage pushbutton latch like you’d find in cars from the ‘50s. It’s a thing of beauty.

LightHawk Volunteer Pilot Jim Grady and his 1953 Cessna 180. image: Steven DeWitt/LightHawk

During every flight Jim brings extensive flight experience paired with deep knowledge of the issues the Centennial State and the Southwest region face. He has worked with some of the top conservation photographers through LightHawk, including one of my favorite image makers Pete McBride, and as a result of this work, brings all that information along with him. He’s a gem.

My shoots were scheduled during the warmer months of the year in Colorado but I was grateful to have followed LightHawk’s advice and prepared for colder weather than what was on the ground. Pants, knit hat, top layers and a down jacket were all employed during my LightHawk flights.

Inside LightHawk Volunteer Pilot Jim Grady’s ‘53 Cessna 180. image: Steven DeWitt/LightHawk

Prior to flying with LightHawk I’d only flown on commercial airlines so, needless to say, flying in a 737 Airbus and a Cessna 180 are radically different experiences. The potent cocktail of nerves and excitement were very distracting for me so having a printed shot list and color coordinated map of the areas we were flying over turned out to be even more valuable than I had originally anticipated.

Jim gave me another helpful piece of advice for our flights, “take a break from looking through the viewfinder of the camera every now and then,” he advised “and look at the horizon.” He explained it would help me maintain my equilibrium, which tends to get messed up when you’re constantly looking through the viewfinder in flight. Man was he right.

Looking down on Bald Mountain and the south section of the Spraddle Creek Proposed Wilderness Expansion Area. In the background are the ski trails of Vail Mountain. image: Steven DeWitt/LightHawkMy aerial images from The Lodgepole Project are supporting local efforts to attain wilderness designation in the Central Mountains of Colorado. Wilderness designation helps protect the entire ecosystem that contains forests impacted by infestation, allowing natural cycles a chance to restore balance. Creating a network of preserves that are large, connected, and resilient is becoming more important as we adapt to our changing climate.

As part of their celebration for the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, The Earth Island Journal published a story featuring images created from my LightHawk flights about the connection between forests impacted by climate change and the need for wilderness designation to protect these impacted forests. The Union of Concerned Scientists report "Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk" and their follow up video "Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk: The Growing Impacts of Climate Change" also made use of these aerial images.

The No Name Proposed Wilderness Area in Colorado’s White River National Forest. In the background is the Sawatch Mountain Range featuring  14,429' Mount Massive and 14,439' Mount Elbert. image: Steven DeWitt/LightHawkLast year Colorado Congressman Jared Polis introduced his Rocky Mountain Recreation and Wilderness Preservation Act. This act seeks to preserve some of Colorado’s most incredible wild landscapes located in the White River National Forest in Summit and Eagle counties. Congressman Polis is using aerial images from my LightHawk flights as a means of generating stakeholder support and ultimately influencing Congress to designate these areas as Wilderness.

Looking down on the oxbows of Hunter Creek just outside Aspen, Colorado in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness Area. image: Steven DeWitt/LightHawkOne of my favorite conservation photographers, Paul Nicklen said “It takes one image to get someone’s attention.” Through the unique perspective of flight, that’s exactly what I hope to accomplish with my aerial images from The Lodgepole Project. Without the invaluable support of volunteer pilot Jim Grady and LightHawk it would be impossible to reach my objectives.

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