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Why Fly Land Trusts?

Irrigated agricultural lands nestled alongside the Arkansas River, Colorado. Denise Dethlefsen with aerial support provided by LightHawk

Guest post by Denise Dethlefsen, Palmer Land Trust

Recently, Palmer Land Trust flew with LightHawk to explore if aerial monitoring was a more efficient approach for our out-of-the-way properties. The flight also enabled us to collect a photographic overview of a number of properties on which we hold conservation easements just north and east of Boone, Colorado. Palmer’s Stewardship Director, Stephanie Thomas, and I met with volunteer pilot David Kunkel and his bright yellow-and-white Maule-7 for the flight. I’d been looking forward to this opportunity ever since we met with LightHawk and learned how flight can effectively inform and build enthusiasm for the conservation work of Palmer, not to mention provide a cost-efficient way to complete stewardship monitoring at properties where ground travel is time-consuming and costly.

Stephanie and I were a bit nervous, since it was our first flight in a small plane, however Dave was very helpful as he helped us get settled into the plane. He provided excellent suggestions to make our experience easier and smoother, including recommendations for camera settings, which probably helped to improve the quality of the photos I took. We discovered that juggling GPS, maps, camera, communications, flight direction, and our own lack of knowledge of the topography from the air was a little overwhelming. Our pilot, however, was completely cool and professional. Dave followed our GPS points, and probably knew more about what we were doing than we did. The sheer volume of photographs we came home with meant a better success rate than I’d originally anticipated.

Scars of the 2012 Wetmore fire are still visible a year later. Portions of this burn scar are found on one of the properties we monitored.

Using preset GPS coordinates, Stephanie and Dave worked together to fly over and observe Palmer-protected properties. Photos of the area will be used as a reference for future monitoring visits and to compare with ground-based photos. During our flight, we were able to visually assess the damage to a Palmer-protected property and its surroundings caused by the 2012 Wetmore fire. Conditions such as burn scars, drought effects, mitigation efforts, and more can be tracked year-by-year with both aerial and ground images.

Contrasts in vegetation based on land use are very visible in this image of portions of a Palmer-protected property.

More than anything, the flight was an education. I took more than 300 images during the two-hour experience and as I began reviewing my images, I was frequently struck by the amazing things we can learn just by changing our perspective. Things missed, never seen, or simply overlooked at ground level became points of interest for further study when seen from the air. Images such as the rainbow of fall colors along Beaver Creek near Penrose, Colorado; the harsh landscape of a twisty stretch of stream thickly lined with shrubbery in the Olney-Boone conservation area; autumn-tawny plains and drainages; homemade ATV race tracks – these are just a sample of the dozens of fascinating patterns and details found. As a result of the LightHawk flight, Palmer Land Trust now has an extensive reference collection of aerial photos to use in planning future conservation efforts. These images also show a number of Palmer-protected properties in a way that was not previously available with only ground-based images.

View east from intersection of Boone Road and Boone Hills East Road over Palmer-protected lands.

After our flight with Dave, I was convinced that the aerial perspective provides useful data about the interconnection of landforms, water, wind, fire, vegetation, and human activity. What is happening at ground level can be more easily understood from a thousand feet above the earth. As a bonus, the monitoring of several properties, along with collection of more than 300 photos, was accomplished in about two hours. To have done this for the same areas on the ground would have taken multiple days due to the distances involved and the ruggedness of some terrain. It was also unlikely we would have been able to see some of the features that were only visible from the air.

Having these aerial images on file may also help to clarify planning and communications with landowners, funding organizations, and other parties. Some of these images may even be educational in that they can inform individuals of realities on the ground that are difficult to visualize in any other way. The collaboration with LightHawk will help Palmer Land Trust protect historic agricultural lands, public open spaces, wildlife habitat, and scenic corridors in the future. I’m already looking forward to my next opportunity to fly with them again.

the river-bottom lands just east of Avondale, Colorado.