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Congressman Up In The Air for Vermont

While we had their vote last time, could we count on it again? The Nature Conservancy Vermont wanted to shore up support from their state’s congressional delegation. LightHawk helped by designing a day of educational flights for the lawmakers.

LightHawk Volunteer Pilot Jamie Gamble (in white) flew Congressman Peter Welch (in blue) to promote informed decision-making for federal environmental funding. TNC VT’s Phil Huffman and Heather Furman enjoyed this unique outreach opportunity to Vermont’s congressional delegation. image: Jamie Gamble/LightHawk

“Why do we take to the air for conservation?” TNC VT said. “So our federal delegates can visually understand the expansive benefits of our work and their federal investments in conservation.”

The lazy East Creek meanders toward Lake Champlain. Nutrient-rich water feeds one of the largest stands of narrow-leaved cattail in the state. Waterfowl tuck their nests into the tangle of reeds. Fish find safe haven in the maze of shallow water roots. image: Mollie Klepack/TNC VT/LightHawk

The latest round of “politics” in DC was putting conservation funds at risk. LightHawk and TNC VT responded with a flight campaign to promote informed decision-making by showing conservation projects on the ground.

We met on a hazy and hot July morning at Heritage Aviation in Burlington. Congressmen Peter Welch, Tom Berry of Senator Patrick Leahy's office, and Haley Pero of Senator Bernie Sanders' office joined us on the tarmac before taking off.

TNC VT invited local media to join the flight. Joel Baird of the Burlington Free Press covered the story as a passenger on VP Gamble’s flight with Congressman Welch.  image: Jamie Gamble/LightHawk

Flying with LightHawk volunteer pilot Jamie Gamble in his capable Expedition 350 aircraft, the group witnessed things from 1,000’ up they couldn’t have understood from the halls of Congress. Through windows reaching the floor, they witnessed the stories of the land and water below.

They saw the impacts of harmful runoff into Lake Champlain in the absence of healthy floodplains. They saw a fragmented landscape contrasted with a protected connected forest: the verdant woodlands that let wildlife roam and live free. They saw waterways obstructed by dams that had outlived their usefulness.

A silty plume of stormwater rushes into Lake Champlain after heavy rains. Healthy floodplains catch sediment from runoff and transform it into rich soil. image: J Henry Fair/LightHawk

The flights also took them over swaths of conserved lands. These protected areas provide valuable resources to forest and recreational economies. The delegation could see how conservation investments deliver clean water, protection from floods, a vibrant economy and a healthy landscape for people and wildlife.

After stepping out of the aircraft, Congressman Welch understood how investments in conservation could pay off in millions of dollars worth of ecosystem services such as water filtration, flood prevention, and air quality. image: Jamie Gamble/LightHawk

Days after the flight, a note on crisp letterhead arrived at TNC VT’s offices.  “Thank you for the recent aerial tour of Vermont’s conserved lands,” Congressmen Peter Welch wrote. “Being able to see the Vermont landscape from a bird’s eye point of view provides context to the conservation debate, and will aid me as I work to support conservation efforts in Congress.”

During those 90-minute flights, LightHawk and TNC VT were able to demonstrate the importance of conservation funding. The powerful perspective of flight helped accelerate conservation, this time by promoting informed decision-making in Congressman Welch and the delegation for Vermont.

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