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Giving policymakers a bird's eye view

Environmental issues can be tough to convey to the public – and to policymakers – because they’re landscape-scale. Flying high above, say, a forest, a factory, or a wetlands complex can give better perspective. But few environmental groups can afford to pay for private flights. For 30 years, the not-for-profit group LightHawk has been bringing together volunteer pilots and environmental causes. David Sommerstein took to the skies and sent us this report:

I arrive at the teeny Potsdam airfield in northern New York State as a single-engine Cessna swoops onto the runaway and rolls to a stop.

"Lemme get out here…"

Pilot Bob Keller squeezes out and stretches.

DAVID: “How’s the flight down?”

"A little cloudy here, more cloudy than I thought, but we’ll go back under the clouds."

Keller’s athletic-looking with a full mustache. He’s a retired financial planner, and now a volunteer for LightHawk.

Every time Keller takes someone into the air for LightHawk, it costs him about 200 dollars an hour. He’s says he loves the outdoors, so it’s a worthwhile donation.

"In order to enjoy the outdoors, you have to try to protect it, so that there’s still places to go that aren’t shopping malls and housing developments."

Headsets on, we take off. In the air, Keller’s like a tour guide, pointing out old paper mills, a water bottling plant, a snaking river.

"Notice all the horseshoes and curves and all the marshy and swampy area. It’s hard to really grasp how big this area really is without flying over it."

It can be hard for environmental groups to persuade politicians or potential donors that something’s worth protecting or saving from pollution, without seeing the big picture firsthand.

"So much is evident from the air. It takes a knowledgeable individual to see those things."

Kelley Tucker is the eastern region programs manager for LightHawk. The group runs a thousand missions a year on behalf of green groups in 10 countries in North and Central America.

"We’ve seen people come down with enormous amounts of scientific data that makes a difference in a board room, in a government office, in a legal decision."

In southwestern Michigan, for example, photos from LightHawk flights have compelled state inspectors to monitor manure lagoons on cattle and hog farms more closely.

"We’ve seen lagoons at extreme capacity and actually have seen run-off of animal waste into the waterways from those."

Lynn Henning is with the Sierra Club and the Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan. The groups have done more than 30 flights with LightHawk, sometimes bringing aboard inspectors from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Henning says those flights make a difference.

"Being able to see what they can’t see from the ground. Areas around the facilities that have died or have been torn out or tree lines removed or lagoons added, and they’re very helpful."

Back aboard Bob Keller’s Cessna, we bank over emerald green forests and hills. Keller says his passengers come away with more than pictures and data.

"You see it from the air, it just enhances the sense of majesty."

It’s that sense of awe that LightHawk and its partners hope lingers with decision makers long after the plane touches back down.

-David Sommerstein for The Environment Report

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.