Lighthawk soars for environmentalists

Date: April 24, 1981
Location: Tucson, AZ
By: Edward Stiles
Newspaper: Tucson Citizen
Page: 1D & 7D

In 1975, the Kalparowits power plant threatened to be as big an environmental disaster as Glen Canyon Dam.

The coal-fired colossus promised to foul the air and scar the land of the nation’s fragile canyon jewels – Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, the Escalante and Canyonlands. A smoldering $3.5-billion smudge pot and four coal mines generating enough electricity for a city of 3 million people.

It was a classic environmental confrontation. The stakes were high and the odds were close as environmentalists and power company executives grappled on the knife edge of public opinion.

A slight shove would send the toppling – toward earth movers or preservation.

That shove, or at least part of it, came when conservation groups held a press conference in Page, and flew reporters over the Kaiparowits Plateau and its environs.

Mike Stewartt was one of four pilots that February day in 1975 when the Kaiparowits project died and Project Lighthawk was born.

Project Lighthawk is the conservationalists’ air arm in the battle to temper development with an environmental conscience. While a single-engine, five-passenger Helio-Courier may seem to be no match for the legions of industry-backed Learjets, conservationists are, like coyotes, accustomed to hit-and-run tactics, to using their limited resources wisely.

That’s where Stewartt comes in. He’s no 100-hour Sunday flier with a new solo ticket. He’s jet-rated, has 4,400 hours of commercial flying time, has dodged Alaskan blizzards and covered thousands of miles of trackless jungle as a bush pilot.

Take his experience in Guatemala, for instance, when he was flying for the Quiche Indians as part of an international aid program called Wings of Hope. The government had agreed to give some land to the Indians. The problem was that it was an 88-day round trip through the dense jungle from their existing villages. Attempts to set up villages near their new land proved difficult. They needed tons of supplies. So they began hacking out an airstrip in the jungle.

Stewartt was the medic on the first flight bringing supplies into the area, sitting behind a crack pilot named Bob, who eventually taught him those tricks bush pilots employ to live to fly another day. Padre Luis was in the co-pilot’s seat peering into the jungle for a glimpse of the strip.

“Bob started throttling back and I saw this little place where you could have a picnic, hacked out in the jungle,” Stewartt remembered.

When they rolled to a stop, there was less than a third of the runway left.

Stewartt has lots of stories like that, but today he prefers to talk about his new venture, Project Lighthawk. Although he attempted to set it up after the Kaiparowits flight, the right combination of support and funding didn’t come through.

Instead, he had to wait until January of this year to get seed money to start the project. Jokingly, he added that if anyone has an extra $60,000 lying around to invest in conservation work, he could use it when the seed money runs out in a couple of months.

But he’s not too worried about funding, because the project already is demonstrating that “it’s a very effective way to spend come conservation dollars.”

Stewartt was in Tucson last week to fly representatives of Defenders of Wildlife, the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club on an aerial reconnaissance of roadless areas.

He explained that loggers, miners, heavy equipment operators and those looking for oil sometimes break existing environmental regulations. Roads are built across designated roadless areas, trees are cut and sometimes industrial chemicals are dumped. Unfortunately, the environmental movement depends heavily on volunteers, and it is months and sometimes years before they cover all the areas on foot. Hundreds of square miles can be inspected by air in a few hours, however.

Lighthawk can spot violations in their early stages.

“in many cases, the legal mechanism to protect an ecosystem already exists,’ Stewartt said. What is missing is the physical ability to identify violators as they begin to “inadvertently” cross roadless boundaries.

But it’s not all swooping in on environmental bandits. Much of Lighthawk’s service has been in the mundane but vital role as an aerial taxi. While industry has paid representatives at improtant public hearings, planning meetings and government inquiries, conservationists sometimes don’t have their most effective representatives there. Most are volunteers who often don’t have the time to travel by car or the money to travel on commercial airlines.

Stewartt noted that, as in the Kaiparowits battle, the airplane is a perfect tool for showing the media – and that means the general public – what’s at stake in conservation battles.

Recently Stewartt flew a congressman and several reporters through an area in Colorado the Army hopes to use as a tank training ground, an area environmentalists hope to save.

On another recent trip, he flew conservationist photographers over an area that would be flooded by a proposed dam. As a result of those photos and action by a citizens’ group in Grand Junction, the Bureau of Land management has decided to reopen the case. It’s an area that offers spectacular scenic solitude, contains some of Colorado’s last mountain lions, is rich with high-quality archaeological sites and filled with herds of antelope, he said.

Finally, Stewartt said, Lighthawk schedules wilderness trips to familiarize conservationists with widespread natural areas in a short time and to help them regain their enthusiasm after weeks of hearings, meetings and organizing.

While flying an airplane all over the West may appear to be a hypocritical activity for people concerned about saving energy, Stewartt said it’s not. Not only does a plane save conservationists time, it saves money and resources as well, he added.

“When we operate with three people at a time, the costs for a 300-mile trip come to within 5 percent of those for the same trip by pickup truck.”

“There are some surprises,” Stewartt said. “Unless one can fly direct and non-stop with the airlines, traveling with the airlines can often be slower than traveling with Lighthawk. Lighthawk has the added advantage of being able to operate in and out of many local airports that the airlines don’t serve.”

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