Lessons from the sky

Students on Flight Across America learn about water in the West — by airplane

Photo by Cayte Bosler

Wearing hardhats and safety goggles, a group of college students from Colorado huddle in the control room at the Four Corners Coal Power Plant in Farmington, N.M. They prod at the equipment that provides energy to 300,000 households. Almost all the employees at the plant are Native American.

The students left the confines of their classrooms for one week to participate in Flight Across America, an all-expenses-paid trip to trace the story of the Colorado River from the air. The ambitious group flies in small planes piloted by the Aspen-based company Eco Flight along the Upper Colorado River Basin in an effort to understand why it is drying up. The program takes an aerial look at water and its relation to the health of ecosystems, energy development, urban planning, recreation, agriculture and wildlife habitat in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. But along the way, it’s the person to person connections, particularly with the Native American tribes, that seem to drive home the lessons of water use and, because energy is a primary player in the water economy of the West, how energy production shapes water consumption.

While water conservation concerns citizens, conservationists, sportsmen and farmers, Native Americans are uniquely affected because power plants and natural gas pads are often built in their communities.

Environmental racism — a concept that refers to geographic relationships between environmental degradation and low-income or minority communities — is often cited by conservation groups in attacks against the industry. Some say the communities lack the resources to fight back or the education to choose alternative livelihoods that mean not working in the power plants.

During their tour of the Four Corners power plant, one student asks the tour guide if he sees a shift to renewable energy sources happening soon.

“It’s inevitable,” the tour guide replies. “The question is what will happen to these jobs. Many people have worked here their entire lives.”

That night, after the tour, the group dines with Navajo high school students at a popular Italian restaurant in town. The students gather around long tables full of bread and pasta. A go-around of “likes” and “dislikes” breaks the tension, and brings out a unified wish from the group: a strong desire for a more sustainable future.

Ashley Basta, a University of Colorado graduate, squeals when she finds out her dinner mate, a 17-year old Navajo boy named Leo, won a running competition put on by the town.

“That’s huge!” she says. He shyly smiles.

Photo by Cayte Bosler

By the time the bread is snatched up, she learns that his grandfather died from cancer after a lifetime of working in the uranium mine.

“Their lives and families are wrapped up in the generating stations and mines,” Basta says later. “The boy I sat next to at dinner, I made the assumption that he was anti-mining because his grandpa had died, and then learned that his dad works at a mining plant. He made a distinction between coal and uranium mining as good and bad. They are so close to these issues, so to be able to fly [with] them, well, I’ll never forget their smiles.”

Fifteen Navajo high school students boarded the small planes the following morning. For many of them, it was their first time in a plane.

“I could see my home,” says one. “It was pretty cool.”

Tom Riggenbach, the students’ social studies teacher and founder of Navajo Yes, a nonprofit that organizes outings for Navajo youth, watched his students emerge from the planes with a proud smile. Hands in pockets, rocking back and forth, he speaks to the Flight Across America students about the status quo that pervades generations on the reservation.

“Almost half the students have a connection to coal and oil. It’s good livelihood for folks, but some of the issues present another side,” he says, referring to issues like environmental degradation and health concerns. “It’s a trick to balance those out. We are facing 50 percent unemployment on the reservation. Any time there is an opportunity for a new plant, it has a lot of appeal. I ask myself, why another coal mine? Why not a bed and breakfast hogan, or guided mountain bike tours?”

Flight Across America students spend hours deliberating each night in motels, sharing their thoughts and experiences. For many, after a day of asking tough questions and grappling intellectually, they get emotional.

“My boyfriend of four years has seen me cry maybe once, but even trying to talk about flying with the Navajo students, I just want to bawl,” says Skyler Nelson, a student at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. “I thought it was special, watching Jimmy play his flute, that really got me.”

“It can be really depressing, and hard to wrap your head around the big issues,” says Jody Fairbanks, a student at the Colorado Mountain College and parttime ski instructor. “It’s not enough to be well-informed, and it’s not enough to care. You actually have to do something.”

Not all of the students take for granted the more liberal points of views. Tyler Hutchinson, also of Colorado Mesa University, comes from a prominent family in the energy development sector. He has a photograph of his grandpa, a famous scientist, standing in front of the explosion from the first atom bomb test.

“What I’ve learned from this trip is that conservation and energy are both important in this world,” he says. “Without collaboration, it’s a bunch of lawsuits and time wasted. We need to get to know each other on a personal basis, so the conservationists can feel how the energy people feel and vice versa. We need to work together.”

Bruce Gordon, founder of Eco Flight, barged into the motel room during a peak in the emotion, and jokingly called for everyone to put their hands in the air like it’s some kind of stick-up.

“Umm, Bruce,” Jane Pargiter, vice president of Eco Flight and Gordon’s long-term partner, begins, “It’s kind of a spiritual moment.”

The group laughs like they’ve known each other longer than the four days that are about to come to an end. Gordon shifts gears, and clasps his hands and tells the students how proud he is of them.

“The best part for me on these trips is I am so inspired by the students — by your intellect, curiosity, enthusiasm and responsibility,” he says. “These are not traits that I see much.”

Gordon has spent his life as a pilot and has witnessed firsthand the drastic changes in landscape in a short period of time.

“I wanted to fly students because every time I took a politician or a decision-maker up in the air, nothing changed,” he says.

Part of the agreement between Eco Flight and the selected students is that they return to their universities and engage by writing articles and giving presentations.

“From the air, the Colorado River courses through the arid West like a bunch of veins. And those veins are drying up,” Basta says. “We fall asleep in our daily lives to how connected everything we do is to water. It’s our responsibility to do something about it.”

Cayte Bosler is a University of Colorado student and was a participant in this year’s Flight Across America.