Pilot gives conservationists a lift

Date: August 17, 1982
Location: Helena, MT
By: Pat Murdo
Newspaper: The Independent-Record
Page: 1B-2B

Flying over beautiful hills and mountains, dipping low to observe herds of wild animals and visiting towns throughout the Rocky Mountain West sounds like an ideal job.

That’s the fun part of Michael Stewartt’s non-profit flying operation. He has less fun than his passengers because he has to maneuver the planes through canyons and across mountains he’s seeing for the first time.

Stewartt, a Santa Fe, N.M., resident, is chief pilot and sole employee of Project Lighthawk, his brainchild conceived in December 1980 and a unique service offered to conservationists.

Project Lighthawk provides a no-cost flying service to tax-exempt non-profit conservation organizations in the Western United States so they can point out possible effects of new laws to the decision makers or changes that already have taken place because of development.

“Without Project Lighthawk there’s no way non-profit conservation organizations could get around,” said Bill Cunningham of the Wilderness Society.

Cunningham and a group of other Montana conservationists took two trips within the last two weeks with Stewartt to spot changes in the Elkhorns and to photograph areas along the Rocky Mountain Front.

Both flights were customized to provide the groups with information on how roads, mining and logging operations were affecting the Elkhorns and areas on the Rocky Mountain Front.

“Mike was able to put us into positions we needed to take pictures,” Cunningham said. “It was the best flight I’ve been on.”

Mark Meloy of the Elkhorn Citizen Organization noted, “Keeping track of road networks is really hard to do on the ground. When you’re up in the air you can cover a whole mountain range in an hour.”

A bird’s-eye view from an airplane also shows how drainages fit together into ecosystems so conservationists can better understand the impacts on one area of logging or roads in another, Cunningham said.

He said his flight over the Middle Fork of the Judith Basin Wilderness Study Area in the Little Belts has made him even more skeptical of the Forest Service’s recommendation for non-wilderness in the area.

These broad overviews of wilderness areas are only part of the public education Stewartt considered part of his function.

Project Lighthawk’s plane also carries conservationists to hearings that they might not otherwise have attended because of the costs involved in getting to the hearings and their limited budgets.

The tasks that Stewartt undertakes for Project Lighthawk means he’s almost continually on the go, either flying, answering requests from groups wanting Lighthawk’s services or seeking funds.

Since the Federal Aviation Administration has asked that he not charge for his flights because he is not a carter service and is non-profit, Stewartt charges nothing.

That means funding must come from private sources. And since the environmental groups that he primarily serves usually run on tight budgets, he avoids seeking funds from their usual benefactors.

“We operate right now literally month by month,” the 33-year-old Stewartt said.

His first attempt about five years ago to establish Project Lighthawk drained his personal savings of $5,000. But then in the late 1980 he persuaded a Colorado rancher to loan him a plane for 150 hours of flying. That loan, and a $6,000 grant from the rancher’s family, gave rise to Project Lighthawk.

Since 1980 Stewartt has raised about $100,000 in contributions, including a $60,000 grant from a Wyoming ranch family to buy a Cessna Turbo 310 six-seater light aircraft.

The gregarious Stewartt figures his annual budget is about $65,000, but he hasn’t reached that amount yet and is forgoing his full salary and the salary for a secretary until the budget improves.

Although he doesn’t like to tap the wallets of the people who usually use his services, Stewartt does contact people who might be more developmentally oriented.

“Mostly I concentrate on communicating with the people who can make relatively large gifts, $1,000 and up,” Stewartt said.

Stewartt views Lighthawk primarily as an educational tool. “We can’t be political.”

But his heart is with the conservationists.

“Basically it’s to serve as a tool to let people know what’s happening,” Stewartt said. “The philosophy is that the residents of the western United States have the opportunity to make the best decisions on development and conservation – if they know what’s happening.”

He adds, “The conservation ethic is being born out in this day and age, but it’s being ignored.”

Although he uses fuel to help conservationists, Stewartt said the “cost-effectiveness and fuel efficiency are very impressive.”

Flying researchers over an area can help cut the fuel expended in lengthy on-the-ground research – both in gasoline and manhours, he said.

This love of conservation combines well with Stewartt’s love of flying, Cunningham noted.

Stewartt has logged about 5,000 hours of flying time, most of it in the Western United States. About 200 hours were in Guatemala where he flew for five to six months for the “Wings of Hope,” a humanitarian organization taking food into missions in Central America.

“Wings of Hope” and his own volunteer flying for conservation movements gave Stewartt the idea for Project Lighthawk.

Stewartt said now he is trying to involve others to fly their planes for Lighthawk. Although he’s had lots of pilots volunteer, he needs plane owners. So far, a couple in Missoula has indicated its willingness to serve. And he has two other pilot/plane owners who have volunteered their services in Colorado and Wyoming. One of his selling points for both services and monetary contributions is that the donations are tax-deductible.

The purpose of finding volunteers in each state is to provide immediate access to a pilot instead of waiting until Stewartt can schedule his trips to make the best use of his time and flight paths.

His six to seven weeks in Montana, for example, have been cut short by a request that he fly Time magazine correspondents and others over a proposed nuclear dump site adjacent to Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah.

But Stewartt says he plans to be back next year in Montana to give conversationalists and others the bird’s-eye view they say they need.

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