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Colorado's Big Thirst as Seen from Above

Wetland structure in the foreground is juxtaposed b y development and a golf course in the upper left. Photo: Joanna Lemly/CNHP with aerial support from LightHawk

As a record snowpack in Colorado’s high country begins to melt and the Cache la Poudre River starts its annual rise, cities and towns in northern Colorado are embroiled in an argument about the future of the river. Starting at the headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park, the first 30 miles of the Poudre is protected as Colorado’s only Wild and Scenic River, but as the river winds its way east out of the mountains to join the South Platte River on the plains near Greeley, over half of the Poudre’s water is diverted for residential, industrial and agricultural use. A proposed series of new dams and diversions aims to divert 46-70% of the water that remains.  

Snowy peaks and dry plains in the background with r iver water stored in reservoirs in the foreground. photo: Joanna Lemly/CNHP with aerial support from LightHawk

New Information about a River in Peril

With controversy swirling around the future of the Poudre, LightHawk is working with Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) to document the condition of the river and investigate the biological character of the watershed. Their work will make sure that river advocates like Save the Poudre: Poudre Waterkeeper have the scientific information they need to make a clear case for conservation. Wetland ecologist Joanna Lemly and her colleagues at CNHP had spent several months last fall working on a survey of wetlands along the Poudre and South Platte Rivers. Using pre-existing historic aerial photos and a series of site visits, the biologists then tried to map the wetlands to better understand the potential ecological impacts of the planned additional dams and diversions along the Poudre.

Volunteer pilot David Kunkel (middle) with his Maul e pre-flight along with Greg Speer of Save the Poudre (left) and Erick Carlson of CNHP (right). photo Joanna Lemly/CNHP

However, the research team hit a roadblock. Their existing aerial photos didn’t provide the information they needed to make accurate maps. Site visits were cut short because the mixture of private and public lands along both rivers made many areas inaccessible. To fill in the missing pieces of this conservation puzzle, CNHP turned to LightHawk and volunteer pilot David Kunkel of Meeker, CO to provide the aerial view of this threatened wetland system. Kunkel flew the researchers in his Maule, which he affectionately calls “the Jeep of airplanes,” to give them a clear view of the wetland systems in the floodplains of the Poudre and South Platte Rivers.

Following the flight Lemly commented, “The flight was incredibly helpful for us to discern just how wet certain areas of the floodplain were, which is important in our mapping. I took nearly 400 photographs from the air that have really helped refine our maps.” The aerial perspective provided the information needed for a thorough understanding of existing wetlands, habitat value and the ways that human development has dramatically changed the floodplain. This information will help conservation groups protect the Poudre River and its associated wetlands from further degradation.

Wetland structure in the foreground is juxtaposed b y development and a golf course in the upper left. Photo: Joanna Lemly/CNHP with aerial support from LightHawk

Big Picture View of a Crossroads for Biodiversity

Following the success of the wetland flight, volunteer pilot Steve Paul of Grand Lake, CO and his Cessna 206 furthered LightHawk’s new partnership with CNHP. Paul provided a photography and monitoring flight over the 50,000-acre JE Canyon Ranch along the Purgatoire River in southeastern Colorado. The eastern half of Colorado is generally thought to be high plains, but the unusual landscape of the Purgatoire canyonlands contains deep red rock canyons, dramatic cliffs and mesas dotted with piñon-juniper trees. This area is a crossroads for biodiversity, boasting mammals from the Rocky Mountains, cacti from the Chihuahuan desert, and birds of the shortgrass prairie. Despite this rich natural history, this area has not received as much attention from Colorado’s active conservation community as other areas of the state.

Canyons along the Purgatoire River provide some of the highest quality riparian systems in eastern Colorado. photo Renee Rondeau with aerial support from LightHawk

CNHP hopes to change that and will use photographs and data gathered during the flight not only to further understanding of the natural features and vegetation of the landscape, but also to encourage conservation in the area. According to CNHP Director Dave Anderson, “This flight was extremely worthwhile and without it we could not have achieved our goals. The JE Canyon Ranch is a world-class site for conservation of biodiversity, culture, and the Earth's history, along with being a place of stunning beauty. I am grateful to LightHawk for giving us the opportunity to see this landscape from above and get an all-encompassing sense of its significance.”

As CNHP scientists continue to catalogue biodiversity and pursue conservation projects throughout Colorado, LightHawk and our volunteer pilots will fly to document river systems, agricultural lands, forests and canyons across the state. Whether the information, images and perspective gained during these flights are used to prevent the damming of the Poudre River or to encourage protection of the Purgatoire canyonlands, the power of flight and the strength of collaboration will produce tangible conservation results on the ground.

Volunteer pilot Steve Paul, a retired Delta airline s captain, donated a flight so CNHP could attain aerial photos of the Purgatoire River canyons. Photo Renee Rondeau with aerial support from LightHawk

Colorado Natural Heritage Program is a statewide conservation organization that tracks, ranks and maps Colorado’s rare and imperiled species and habitats. CNHP provides scientific data to organizations, agencies and landowners to help promote conservation in Colorado and throughout the Rockies region.