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EcoFlight intended to educate Rifle High School students on environment

Rifle High School students receive a pre-flight tutorial at the Rifle Garfield County Airport.
Ray K. Erku / Citizen Telegram

Wearing an aviation headset, Joshua Thorpe tilted his head toward the window and peered at the mountainous landscape thousands of feet below.

Vast rows of solar panels soaked up the sun, emerald pools of water sat stagnant and giant mud pits surrounded by dirt berms dotted the Colorado River Valley below.

Bruce Gordon, the pilot of the single-engine Cessna, then maneuvered the plane toward the Roan Plateau.



“I think you scared Josh a little bit,” Rifle High School classmate Jackson Ryan Sanders said jokingly as he sat beside Thorpe.

It was a bright, bluebird morning May 19 when seven Rifle High School students were taken on a flying tour of the area courtesy of EcoFlight, an Aspen-based nonprofit organization that aims to educate and advocate for the protection of remaining wildlands and wildlife habitat.



Passengers prepare for takeoff from the Rifle Garfield County Airport.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Using his plane, Gordon, EcoFlight co-founder and president, provided bird’s-eye views of western Garfield County during two 20-minute flights. Students donning aviation headsets were encouraged not only to absorb essentially a 360-degree view of the valley but to spot all the traits and sites of energy development.

“Our mission is to educate and advocate for the environment using small airplanes,” Gordon said. “We inspire people to learn about their environment and to speak out about what they learn and what they care about.”

Pilot Bruce Gordon flies his single-engine Cessna.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Gordon’s been flying since he moved to Aspen in the 1970s. He later helped create EcoFlight.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be in the outdoors, whether it’s hunting or fishing or climbing — it’s so important to me,” Gordon said. “I’ve also been involved with young people doing outdoor education, and, to me, it’s a perfect way to inspire people and learn more and how to live with their environment and make educated decisions for the future for their environment.”

Through the power of aviation, Gordon guided the students over solar power farms, oil wells, pipelines and more. The goal was to give the students a true idea of how much development actually encompasses Garfield County alone.

Vast rows of solar panels seen from above in Garfield County.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Nathan Perrault is the Leadership through Exploration, Action and Discovery (LEAD) coordinator for Rifle high and middle schools’ Buddy Program, which provides mentorships for students in school districts between Aspen and Rifle. He said the experience helps students connect what they discussed in class to their own lives.

“We have a need for the oil and gas industry — we need that right now,” he said. “We’re not totally ready to switch over to wind and solar and that type of technology yet. But this is a great way to see the impact of it and maybe give them a different perspective on how much it encroaches on the environment and wildlife corridors and wildlife habitat.”

This is the third year Perrault has taken students on an EcoFlight. Before, it was only an amenity of the Roaring Fork Valley.

Rifle High School student Joshua Thorpe looks out the window of a small plane.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

“A lot of the kids are super excited for this opportunity. It’s really cool just to get up in the air and see their local area from a small plane. I don’t get to fly in small planes all that often either,” Perrault said. “We’re 15 minutes away from the school right now. And if we were having to fly out of Aspen, we’d have to wake up earlier and commute.

“Bruce really likes to fly in the morning when the weather’s more stable and calm.”

FREE FOR TAKEOFF

Gordon was conducting a pre-flight meeting with a Rifle High School outdoor leadership class in the lobby of the Atlantic Aviation terminal, one of the many industrial-sized buildings that line the 7,000-foot runway at the Rifle Garfield County Airport.

“Here in Rifle, there’s a lot of oil and gas and wells, but you might see only a few by the highway,” he said. “If we fly up over, you’ll see, ‘Oh, there’s a lot more,’ and you’ll get an idea of the landscape.”

Garfield County — especially western Garfield County — is at a crossroads of contention when it comes to energy development. The area went from an oil boom in the 2000s to encountering significantly less well starts each year.

A pool of water, the product of energy development, seen from an airplane flying over Garfield County.
Ray K. Erku /Post Independent

“I don’t want you to be thinking politically,” Gordon told the students. “I don’t want you to look out the left side of the window, I don’t want you to look outside the right side of the window. I want you to be looking at the landing.”

Jason Webster, 17, said he’s flown in small planes before. The Rifle High School junior, who said he likes heights, was first and foremost looking forward to elevating high above the expansive landscape.

“I definitely haven’t been in a plane in a while, so it will be really cool to see the view,” he said.

As for energy development, however, Webster said he’s only seen well sites up close and personal.

The Roan Plateu seen from high in the air.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

“Yeah, I’ve driven by them a lot, too, to hang out with friends,” he said. “So I’ve seen them at ground level, but I’d like to see them from up above, too.”

Gordon, the longtime pilot, cracked an aviation joke after the briefing.

“OK, who’s the first victim?”

UP IN THE AIR

Rifle High School senior Carisan Cunningham, 17, was walking on the tarmac toward the single-engine Cessna. She wasn’t nervous about having to ascend thousands of feet above the Rocky Mountains.

“I’ve done this before,” she said.

One by one, Gordon ushered the students into their seats in the cabin, had them put on their headsets and prepared the aircraft for takeoff.

Mountains toward the south of Rifle.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Gordon flew right over Rifle, soared along the Roan Plateau and headed east toward the Roaring Fork River Valley, where the paperwhite peak of Mt. Sopris poked out in the distance.

He pointed out scores of solar panels gleaming visibly from the sun’s rays, teal pools of water — the product of drill wells — alongside the Colorado River and long pipelines snaking through ranch land.

“I guess I enjoyed the view of it,” Thorpe said. “I learned that a lot of Rifle has a bunch of wells that I didn’t even know were around, so that gave me more of an insight of how much oil that we use.”

Rifle High School students boarding a plane at the Rifle Garfield County Airport.
Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Sanders also got a new perspective.

“I just learned what was around here that I never noticed after taking a better look,” he said.

“Once you’re up, it’s a lot,” Cunningham added “There’s a lot of solar, too.”

By the end of the ride, Sanders couldn’t get enough.

“Can we go up there a second time?” he said.

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@postindependent.com.


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