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Eight Highlights from 2012

LightHawk's Cessna 206 over the Mesoamerica Barrier Reef off Belize. credit: Tony Rath/

LightHawk's version of air traffic controllers, Armando, Christine, Jonathan and Shannon work with about 250 conservation groups each year. These talented conservation professionals forge partnerships, plan flights, and deploy volunteer pilots in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama to supercharge conservation efforts.

Of our more than 300 projects, LightHawk's program managers have chosen their favorite eight to highlight in our year-in-review WayPoint Flight Story.

Student volunteers plant native trees to help restore the Colorado River Delta. Credit: Sonoran Institute

Hope for the Delta
LightHawk, Sonoran Institute, Pronatura Noroeste, Environmental Defense Fund and others had a lot to celebrate this Thanksgiving. Just before the holiday, a deal was reached that paves the way to bring more water to the Colorado River Delta, while raising lake levels in the U.S. and helping Mexican farmers repair earthquake-damaged irrigation canals.

LightHawk donated a series of flights in the region to bring the remote reaches of the Delta closer to decision-makers, media and community members. These flights energized the push to restore this remarkable ecosystem and publicized the benefits of nurturing this neglected area.

image courtesy of John Kennedy

Making Time to Protect Big Cats
Still settling into her office, Belize's new Minister of the Environment was having trouble finding time for an offsite meeting. But Panthera knew that taking her up on a LightHawk flight was important. The view from the air would show her how incursions in a protected corridor could spell doom for her country’s jaguars and convince her to take swift action.

When getting on the minister's schedule proved impossible, Armando Ubeda, LightHawk's program manager in the region, had to get creative. "I knew this was a really important flight for the future of the jaguar in Belize," he explained, "so we moved our other scheduled flights around and kept our Cessna 206 airplane in Belize until we could fly the Minister."

The flight was a success. "...without a flight that permitted a bird's eye view of the area, it would have been really difficult to explain to the Minister what the corridor is, how it functions and the specific threats that affect it," said Elma Kay from the University of Belize. "Since our flight with the Minister, an illegal trench cutting through [a protected area] has been discovered and her awareness of the corridor and its issues have helped us to get her unconditional support in prosecuting those responsible."

The undammed Elwha River empties into the Strait of Juan de Fuca at Lower Elwha Klallam Reservation. The formation of a new beach and the high sediment load of the river are visible in this photograph taken July 11th 2012. Credit: Neal Chism/LightHawk

Capturing the Rebirth of a River
Linda Chism's (Seattle, WA) husband, Neal, is a backseat driver, but she doesn’t mind. With Linda at the controls in the front of their two-seat Piper Super Cub, Neal sits in the back making images of the landscape below and sometimes suggesting course changes. During a five-month period in 2012, Linda and Neal donated their combined services to capture the re-emergence of the Elwha River as it ran free for the first time in almost a hundred years. Neal's aerial photos empower scientists working on the project to understand sediment erosion from the former reservoir areas, changes in the floodplain downstream and how the coastal zone changes as a result of the free-flowing Elwha. 

The Elwha River, in Washington State’s Olympic National Park, flows north and empties in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It once supported all five species of Pacific salmon, as well as steelhead, native char and cutthroat trout. For the last century, the presence of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams severely diminished the runs. However, in the midst of the nation's largest-ever dam removal project, the fish are already making their return.

Endangered Antillean manatee spotted in a shallow coastal area. Credit: Tony Rath/LightHawk

Discovering Record Numbers of Endangered Manatees
April 2012 was a good time to be a marine biologist in Belize. During that month, a series of survey flights with LightHawk volunteer pilot Rick Durden (Conifer, CO) allowed scientists to find 507 Antillean manatees (Trichechus manatus). This first survey in five years resulted in the most sightings of this threatened species ever recorded in Belize. The flights also enabled researchers to conduct the first aerial survey of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in Belizean waters.

Knowing the value of capturing high quality aerial images, LightHawk contacted photographer Tony Rath and enlisted him to join the flights. Tony had flown with LightHawk in the past and agreed to donate his expertise to document the marine mammals increasing media attention for the survey. National Geographic Newswatch, Discovery News and The Huffington Post covered the survey and published a gallery of Tony’s images. (see a gallery of Tony's photographs by clicking the links)

Volunteer pilot Rick Durden (center) spent hours flight planning to optimize survey flight coverage for Dr. Holly Edwards from Oceanic Society (left) and Nicole Auil Gomez of Belize Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (right). Credit: Tony Rath/

Rick was faced with a list of more than 100 desired waypoints that would have taken at least six days of flying to achieve, but scheduling limited the survey to four days. "I look up to scientists and love working with them," said Rick, "especially because they sometimes get so involved that they don't step back and look at the big picture. This is where having knowledge of the area we are to fly and what the airplane can and cannot do allows me to make a contribution to the project." Rather than cut a chunk out of their desired survey map, Rick spent hours plotting a series of flight routes to cover as much area as possible. In the end, Rick was able to deliver nearly all the points the surveyors desired.

A team from the Oceanic Society flew the remote Turneffe Atoll, while counts on the mainland coast were conducted by Belize's Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute. The information gathered during these four days of flights is helping scientists understand the manatees' travel patterns and habitat use in Belize. As a result, boat traffic can try to avoid manatee highways and calving grounds.

 The High Park Fire near Fort Collins burned more than 87,000 acres. Credit: Michael Menefee/LightHawk

Finding a Way Forward After the Fire
On June 9, 2012 an early summer thunderstorm sparked a fire in the dry foothills west of Fort Collins, Colorado. Over the next three weeks, the High Park fire burned 259 homes and more than 87,000 acres. The fire burned a large portion of the Poudre River Watershed, which serves as a primary source of water for the cities of Fort Collins and Greeley, as well as several rural water districts. With extensive areas of burned timber and unstable soils, heavy late summer rains caused severe mudslides that closed roads and made the Poudre river run black.

In the face of this devastation, scientists, non-profit organizations and local government leaders got together and formed the High Park Restoration Coalition to ensure coordinated, well-planned restoration efforts. LightHawk was there in the early stages of the effort, flying leaders of the coalition over the burned area to inform their planning efforts in August and September.

LightHawk volunteer pilots prepare their aircraft for a dawn departure. Credit: Sam Greenfield/LightHawk
On the morning of October 8th, seven LightHawk pilots in Loveland for our annual Fly-In provided the aerial perspective to twelve additional community leaders. Passengers on these flights observed the effects and extent of the fire, and were also able to see volunteers on the ground actively working to stabilize soils with barriers and reseeding efforts. Following the flights, they met to share ideas and emphasize the importance of coordinating their efforts and working together to efficiently and effectively restore the watershed that they all depend upon for drinking water and recreation.

Ten volunteer pilots have donated flights to this effort: Mike Conway (Fort Collins, CO), Ed DeCastro (Laramie, WY), Dan Evans (Carr, CO), Bernard Gateau (Walden, CO), Pat Healy (Bloomfield Hills, MI), Chuck Heywood (Ridgway, CO), Jane Nicolai (Vancouver, WA), Chuck Schroll (Tucson, AZ), Andy Young (Boulder, CO) and Stephanie Wells (Arvada, CO).

The thin white band on Whiskey Stump Key (center) in Tampa Bay, Florida is the site of oyster shell restoration which improves water quality, restores hard bottom and provides habitat. Credit: Peter A. Clark/Tampa Bay Watch/LightHawk

Wetlands in the Front Seat
For decades, healthy wetlands have come second to development and commerce. These important ecosystems were drained for farmland, polluted by runoff and allowed to decline without given much thought. But now, wetlands, marshes and estuaries are getting the respect and attention they deserve. They are recognized as important for minimizing impacts from flooding and control erosion, purifying water, and providing essential habitats for fish and wildlife valuable both ecologically and commercially.

For the third time, LightHawk supported our strategic partner Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE) with educational and outreach flights over local wetlands during RAE’s annual conference. This year, volunteer pilots Alan Kinback (Juno Beach, FL) and Bruce McGregor (Ocala, FL) flew conservation professionals, donors and corporate sponsors over the coastal estuaries of Tampa Bay, Florida. RAE Executive Director Jeff Benoit explains, “LightHawk flights help put what we do in context. When you’re working on a restoration project, you go to one little spot and you don’t see how that area fits with the rest of the wetland. With the aerial perspective, you see the whole picture.”

A Call From the Wild
They answered his call from all directions altering the course of his life in the process. Hardware store owner Cecil Garland was transfixed as the bugling of bull elk echoed in the Montana mountains 75 miles northwest of Helena. He decided that day that he would work to protect the elks’ wilderness from the loggers' ax.

Nearly two decades later, in 1972, with help from other local residents and bipartisan support in Montana's congressional delegation, the Scapegoat Wilderness was designated. This was the nation’s first successful citizen-proposed wilderness area. But the fight took a toll on Cecil both personally and professionally and he moved to southern Utah to start a new life.

Wilderness advocate Cecil Garland saw the Scapegoat Wilderness he fought so hard to protect from a perspective he had never enjoyed before: from above. Credit: John Gatchell/MWA.

In July 2012, Cecil returned to the Scapegoat with LightHawk volunteer pilot Reg Goodwin (Clancy, MT) providing an aerial tour of the land he knew so well from the ground. Cecil’s daughter, Becky, and Montana Wilderness Association's John Gatchell joined him that day. After the flight Becky said, "It was very hard to keep the tears from flowing once Dad began to recall exactly where he was. His voice was full of excitement and bursting with pride to know that his beloved, Lincoln Backcountry/Scapegoat Wilderness is still intact." Reg was so touched by the flight experience that he vowed to get into the Scapegoat on the ground as soon possible.


Repeated circling over nesting cranes is shown as yellow spirals in this flight tracker graphic from a typical aerial survey flown by Jamie Gamble.

Flying Craniacs
“The crane flights were the highlight of my aviation life,” said pilot Jamie Gamble (North Granby, CT) after a week of iron-stomach flying for whooping crane conservation. In April 2012, volunteer pilots Pat Healy (Bloomfield Hills, MI), James Knowles (Tenants Harbor, ME), Richard Sedgwick (Minnetonka, MN) and Jamie brought their planes and piloting skills to Necadah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin for a total of four weeks. The flights involved repeated circling over crane nests so that International Crane Foundation (ICF) scientists could keep tabs on the expectant cranes. After the U.S. population of whooping cranes was reduced to only 21 individuals, ICF began building their numbers and created this new flock as an insurance policy. All eyes were on these cranes, who had just begun nesting in the wild.

Whooping crane with chick. credit: International Crane Foundation.

ICF noted, “[The pilots’] contribution to whooping crane conservation is almost beyond measure, as the information they allow us to gather is just not possible from the ground.” Jamie speaks for all of us at LightHawk when he said, “Knowing the future of these magnificent birds depends on increasing numbers in the wild, seeing a day-old chick balanced on the edge of a nest brings immense hope and inspiration.”

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