The Plane Truth
From the cockpit of Bruce Gordon’s six-seater Cessna 210, it’s clear that the natural world abhors human geometry. Flying a couple of thousand feet above northwestern Wyoming’s rugged Absaroka Range, Gordon took one hand off the controls to make the point, tracing with a finger the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, a few miles to the north. On the map it’s a straight line, but the aerial view offers nothing but a snarl of peaks and pinnacles, rivers twisting through emerald valleys, and the shimmering expanse of Yellowstone Lake, whose shape one nineteenth-century explorer compared to "the broad hand of an honest German, who has had his forefinger and the two adjoining shot off at the second joint, while fighting for glory and Emperor William."
Yet the mapmakers and politicians of that era divided up the land with protractors and compasses, cutting the plains into quarter sections, slicing Wyoming into a perfect rectangle, and demarcating three sides of the national park with straight lines of administrative convenience. Our aerial view laid bare the natural logic of the landscape, showing that the limits of the park define no more than an arbitrary chunk of what we now call the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem -- barely one-eighth, in fact, of its 30,000 square miles.
The park’s creators fretted that speculators would fence in the geysers and charge admission, wrecking the place as others had wrecked Niagara Falls. Since that time we have multiplied our wrecking techniques; the view from the Cessna discloses highways, sprawling resort communities, labyrinthine forest roads, natural gas fields, and pine forests dying from climate change. With each change in altitude and angle, the perspective shifts, and so do perceptions -- of the intersecting components of the ecosystem, the beauty of the land, the threats it faces, and, by extension, the strategies that are needed to protect it.
Gordon owns a company called EcoFlight, based in Aspen, Colorado, and dedicated to strengthening those perceptions in his passengers. On any given day these may include politicians, businesspeople, tribal leaders, reporters, scientists, and schoolchildren. He calls it "conservation flying." Much of it is done in the Northern Rockies, but you may also spot his Cessna over Anasazi ruins in New Mexico, flying through the brown haze drifting up from the Four Corners coal-fired power plant; above the giant Carlin open-pit gold mine in Nevada (to show Alaskan visitors what they can expect from the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay); or over the short-grass prairie of Colorado’s Piñon Canyon, which the army proposes to convert into training grounds.
Most of these lands are publicly owned and managed, in theory, for the public good, either by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. These federal agencies are charged with guaranteeing the "multiple use" of the vast acreage they administer -- on the one hand, grazing, logging, and mineral extraction and, on the other, recreation, aesthetic enjoyment, and wildlife protection. Gordon wants his passengers to think hard about how all these uses, especially in unique places like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, can be most intelligently balanced. He hardly needs to say that this is not now the case.
Gordon is in his mid-sixties. he has a stocky, athletic build and short gray hair. Born in Chicago, he grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey. When I first met him, his demeanor put me in mind of the actor Harvey Keitel (without the menace); the second time it was more suggestive of Bruce Willis (without the smirk).
As a young man, he never dreamed of becoming a pilot. He went to Ithaca College in New York on a baseball and soccer scholarship and studied business administration, and it was there that his environmental instincts began to stir. "It must have been all the forests around Ithaca," he told me. "Nature got into my soul." Then what he calls "the Vietnam thing" turned him into an activist.
In 1966, after graduation, Gordon went to Hollywood with notions of working as a stuntman at Universal Studios. The following year he took part in the march on the Pentagon. But by then the draft had caught up with him. "I was selected to go to Vietnam three times," he said, "but it never happened. In the end they sent me to Germany, and I was assigned to intelligence." Within a year, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he was working on plans for nuclear retaliation. They were confusing times.
When he was released from the service he tried finance for a while. But after a year and a half on Wall Street he packed up a ’56 Volkswagen and headed for San Francisco with $200 in his pocket. Along the way he stopped off in Aspen, met a woman, had dinner with her, and stayed. It was more for the skiing than to put down roots, which would not at that time have been in character.
With the help of the Veterans Administration, he took flying lessons and qualified as a commercial pilot. He considered a career in mountain search and rescue and wondered about Alaska. He went climbing in the Himalayas and the Chilean Andes. In 1980 he joined forces with a fellow pilot named Michael Stewart, who had formed a company called LightHawk with the novel idea of placing his skills at the disposal of the environmental movement. His closest friend was the singer John Denver, another avid pilot-conservationist. (Denver died in 1997 at the controls of his own experimental light aircraft; the last song he wrote was called "Yellowstone, Coming Home.")
Shortly after Denver died, Gordon parted ways with LightHawk and started EcoFlight, preferring to be his own boss. He runs the company with his famously efficient South African fiancée, Jane Pargiter (whom he met on a ski gondola) and a skeleton office staff. Three other pilots are on call. Aspen is a fashionable place, but Gordon and Pargiter live simply in a small cabin, with few material possessions other than the Cessna.
The first time I flew with Gordon was in July 2009, as part of a survey of the condition of greater Yellowstone’s whitebark pine forests. Whitebark is a hardy species that grows at altitudes above 8,500 feet; its nuts are a critical food source for grizzly bears. But both tree and bear were in deep trouble. The threat had been clear for at least a decade to a Forest Service entomologist named Jesse Logan, a garrulous, hyperkinetic 66-year-old who retired from the service four years ago and doesn’t seem to miss it much, perhaps because his bosses never seemed convinced of the value of his work. Logan’s field research in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range had produced striking insights into the relationship between the "ghost forests" he saw there, rising temperatures, and the consequent northward movement of the northern pine beetle, which was killing the trees in vast numbers. But he saw the service’s interest in forests as being driven largely by the timber industry, and whitebark is not a commercial species. "They said my work was conceptually interesting but I should spend my time on something more important," he told me sardonically, when we met for dinner near his home in Montana’s Paradise Valley.
As Logan’s retirement approached, his work came to the attention of Louisa Willcox, a senior wildlife advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who was gearing up for a fight with the Bush administration over the imminent removal of the Yellowstone grizzly from the endangered species list. If its main winter food source was at risk, this was a powerful new argument for the bear’s continued protection. "So I got in touch with Jesse," she told me, "and said, 'What if we do a predictive study of whitebark pine in the Yellowstone ecosystem?'"