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Our Seven Best from 2011

Zeke's release. photo: Tom Buckley, USFWS

Our Seven Best from 2011

It's been a rollercoaster year for conservation and some say we'd have to be nuts to stay on for the ride. But for those of us who rode it out through the lows, we present some high points that make it all worthwhile. Check out the stories below including five involving mining, drilling or development in very sensitive places, and how LightHawk flights helped protect these extraordinary natural jewels.

Into the Wild

LightHawk’s Wolf Pack - pilots who donate flights in their fast turbo props - transported five endangered Mexican wolves in 2011 within the Species Survival Plan. One of those wolves, M1049 “Zeke”, was released into the Arizona wilderness by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Volunteer pilot Joy Covey (Woodside, CA) flew Zeke in her Pilatus PC12 from the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis, Missouri to Arizona. Covey and her young son had the privilege of accompanying the handler to the release site. “As the day progressed,” recalls Covey, “we truly grasped the significance of our flight. Without LightHawk, Zeke would have had to travel by commercial air cargo, or even FedEx, a very stressful experience.” Zeke was later recaptured when he hadn’t found the pack and been struggling to survive alone.

The current challenge: it looks like Mexican wolves are losing their battle to gain a foothold in the wild. Arizona has stepped out of the release program and, as a result, the federal government is unwilling to release animals in New Mexico. A few seconds is all it takes to tell US Fish and Wildlife Service you support releasing Mexican wolves into New Mexico wilderness.

Coastal British Columbia. photo: Neil Ever Osborne/iLCP with aerial support from LightHawk.

First Nations Ban Dirty Oil in their Territories

Coastal British Columbia is a magnet for those who want to experience landscapes teeming with wildlife and towering slopes that plunge into deep fjords. This area is home to the Great Bear Rainforest, the largest coastal temperate rainforest on earth. It is also where a proposed twin pipeline would move dirty tar sands crude oil overland and into huge tankers to overseas markets. A potential spill would devastate local First Nations whose lives are inextricably tied to the land. In addition to the usual cadre of conservation players, LightHawk volunteer pilot Steven Garman (Ketchum, ID) flew many flights with the International League of Conservation Photographers to document the landscape, and First Nations to survey their coastal and interior territories from the air – a perspective many of them had never experienced before.

Members of the Gitga'at, the Saik'uz, and the Wet’suwet’en Nations relied on the scope and scale provided by the flights to confirm from the air what their instincts told them. Now over 130 First Nations have united in banning all exports of tar sands crude oil through their territories, and effectively all of BC. This action will make it more difficult to pipe crude through the First Nations lands, as their consent to pipelines and tankers in their territories is required by international law.

Highway 12 as it winds along the Lochsa River valley. photo: Jane OHolly Productions with aerial support from LightHawk

A Road Too Narrow

Volunteer pilot Reg Goodwin (Clancy, MT) enabled a film crew to gather video and still footage over the Lochsa River valley in eastern Idaho for a film advocating protection for the area. The slim, serpentine two-lane highway that cuts through the valley was proposed to become a "high and wide" corridor to transport enormous industrial cargo destined for the tar sands of Alberta.

Typical loads would be over half a football field long, nearly three stories high and as wide as a logging truck turned sideways. Local concerns included transformation of the rural road to an industrial route, disruption of emergency medical traffic, and the potential for degradation of the river if an accident were to happen on the narrow, winding road. In the end, Imperial Oil, and its parent company Exxon, nixed their original plans and began shipping the modules over interstate routes that were already dedicated to heavy traffic and large loads.

Landslides hit Panama hard at the end of 2011. photo: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

A Map of Landslides Yields a Ton of Prevention

In the last days of 2010, Panama was hit by a devastating rainstorm which resulted in deaths, property damage, infrastructure failures, and a 17-hour closure of the Panama Canal. Drinking water was also contaminated as a result of tremendous erosion in the Canal’s headwaters.

In 2011, LightHawk donated flights to Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) to help them create a map of landslides on the undisturbed and developed landscapes within parts of the Panama Canal Basin. These images and data complemented information gathered by the Panama Canal Authority which monitors rainfall, river flow, and suspended sediment. Taken together, they enabled the creation of forecasting models to identify areas prone to future damage and those which must remain intact to prevent disruptions to drinking water, infrastructure and Canal traffic. Read STRI’s article Landslides: How Rainfall Dried up Panama's Drinking Water for the full story.

Access roads to drill pads cut through Pennsylvania parklands adjacent to NY. photo: Cathy Pedler/Allegheny Defense Project/LightHawk

Frack No, Says NY

Aerial images from a LightHawk flight donated by volunteer pilot Bob Keller (Boonville, NY) over oil and gas drilling just over the border in Pennsylvania convinced New York State to ban oil exploration and fracking on state lands. Millions of people utilize these large tracts of parklands and wilderness. Wildlife relies on them as corridors to travel to forage, breed and complete their annual migrations.

“I spoke with Neil Woodworth of Adirondack Mountain Club after his meeting with the State,” says Kelley Tucker, LightHawk’s Eastern Region Program Manager. “He described the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) and Governor Cuomo's staff first look at the aerial images of fracking, and their dismay over the scale of the industrialization.” Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest and New York's Allegheny State Park meet at the border like conjoined twins. Far from mirror images, Pennsylvania’s park is a tapestry of oil and gas drilling, providing a stark contrast to its New York sibling which is now off limits to drilling.

Newly protected Flathead River Valley. photo: Garth Lenz/iLCP with aerial support from LightHawk

Flathead Protected

British Columbia's wild and sweeping Flathead River Valley is now a place where mining is off-limits. The province passed a law this year that bans mining and drilling in nearly 400,000 acres, fulfilling a trans-border agreement to protect the Canadian portion of the Flathead River Basin. LightHawk volunteer pilot Jim Cameron (Pincher Creek, Alberta) flew Garth Lenz from the International League of Conservation Photographers whose images captured the scale and scope of this wild landscape. Flying over a nearby mountaintop removal mine brought home what could lie ahead for the valley if it were not protected.

Proud papa Armando Ubeda and new daughter Ren Victoria Noss Ubeda. photo: April Noss.

The Best Kind of Holiday Delivery

When asked what he recalls with pride about 2011, Mesoamerica Program Manager Armando Ubeda replied immediately, “the birth of my daughter!” Good answer, Papa. We congratulate Armando, wife April and son Kai on the addition of Ren Victoria Noss Ubeda who provides 7 lbs 12 oz of adorable motivation to keep fighting for a healthy planet.