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LightHawk: 2019 Our Annual Report of Conservation Flying

The other day, I had a conversation with my teenage niece that left me with such hope for this planet's future.

We were on a walk through the woods and she began talking about a presentation she did for school on how deforestation is contributing to animal extinctions. I asked what led to that topic, and she told me she'd spent over four hours reading the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species and wanted to know why so many animals were in danger. She read how people destroying forests for agriculture and climate change were the primary causes.

She then went on to talk about how studying these things and finding solutions was what she wanted to study in college and pursue as a career.

Then she said, "And that is why LightHawk is so incredibly cool. Everything you do, in some way, touches on a piece of the puzzle of climate change and the impact on people. You get to do so many things in so many places that make a difference in this big issue that will help save our planet. LightHawk is amazing!"

Proud Aunt moment. But then fade to... proud LightHawk moment.

To hear young people passionately want to become a part of the work we do in conservation is inspiring. And it is imperative.

We continue to need to have more and more people care a whole awful lot — like you do. Having you on our team — young and old, newly learning and old hands, inspires hope. And hope inspires us — all of us — to take actions to make a difference.

Of the many contributions LightHawk makes in conservation — whether data, imagery, informing journalism, or educating decision makers — the one that is most powerful is inspiring understanding and feeding hope that change is possible. From a thousand feet up, limitations and barriers fade and solutions become more clear.

When people have hope and can see possibilities, the have the required element for change. And things can get better. The can.

Thank you for being on our team, for spreading the word, and for caring enough to make the differences we want to see in our world.

Mt. Rainier looms over checkerboard forests. LightHawk flies this region in search of white-headed woodpeckers, a keystone species that other animals rely on. Photo: Benjamin Drummond.

Our Mission

To accelerate conservation success through the powerful perspective of flight.

Why We Exist

We know that aviation can greatly enhance conservation work, often in ways that are not immediately obvious. We also know that aviation resources are often too costly for conservation efforts even if their value and contribution is understood.

What We Do

LightHawk conservation staff seek out projects and partners where we know we can make a significant contribution. We then serve as consultants co-designing flight campaigns to achieve relevant and important conservation outcomes, educational objectives and outreach strategies.

How We Do It

Once we have a project planned, we tap into our network of nearly 300 volunteer pilots who donate expertise, time, aircraft, and fuel to support the project, making flight support free of direct cost to our partners.

How LightHawk Inspires Change

Types of Flight Projects

Our Conservation Initiatives

Imagine if you could get 380 hours of work done in just 1.5 hours. That's what LightHawk does for land trusts.

Land trusts routinely monitor the conservation easements they hold. These easements prohibit building or property development. Traditionally, land trust staff members drive to visit each easement property and tour it from the ground, noting any infractions. Driving to view properties often takes hundreds or thousands of hours each year. In just a few hours, LightHawk provides close-up aerial views of easements, freeing staff to spend more time on acquisition and stewardship.

PROJECT: The Upper Valley Land Trust in New England is a new partner for LightHawk this year.

With more than 500 easements spread over 45 towns in Vermont and New Hampshire, monitoring takes thousands of hours each year. "We tried hiring a drone pilot, and purchasing aerial photos," noted Jason Berard, Stewardship Director for the land trust.

"Working with LightHawk gave the best results by far with 317 properties photographed in just six hours!" - Jason Berard, Stewardship Director of Upper Valley Land Trust

PROJECT: Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust Relationship Building

With our partner, the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust in Colorado, we flew to show Colorado state representative Donald Valdez their important work in the San Luis valley. The size of Connecticut, this is one of the largest alpine valleys in the world. Some funding for conserving this area comes from the state lottery, but that funding is perpetually in jeopardy. Rep. Valdez is now armed with stories and images of how much the program has benefited farmers, residents and tourists to defend the law.

OUTCOME: Just a few weeks after the flight with Valdez, a landowner called the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust to conserve her 800 acres. She learned about this opportunity after Valdez told her about the flight.

"This is way worse than I ever expected..."

"I didn't expect this. I didn't expect our beach to wash into the estuary," commented Serge Dedina, Mayor of Imperial Beach, CA as ocean water flooded the streets of his city.

This January in Imperial Beach, California, along with many other coastal communities in North America, residents experienced a sample of the inundation possible for future sea level rise during a king tide. King tides occur naturally when the alignment of the sun, moon and earth causes high tides to be much higher than usual. The resulting flooding shows us first hand what sea level rise will do to our coasts in the future.

"We have higher tides so we have coastal flooding going on today, the worst that I've ever seen in my 40 years of living in Imperial Beach," noted Mayor Dedina. However he hasn't lost hope. Dedina is committed to confronting the reality of sea level rise, and gathering community and national support to adapt. "It's a wake up call. The reality is, it's not easy to get people to think about what's going to happen in 100 years... but the way to frame that discussion is through coastal flooding. It's less abstract."

King tide waves break over sea walls in Ventura, CA. While coastal building has increased, it is in increasing danger as sea level rises. Photo: Paul Jenkin/Surfrider/LightHawk.

LightHawk and Surfrider Foundation annually tour coastlines from the air, documenting exactly how the sea will inundate our towns and cities if no action is taken to mitigate and prepare for climate change. It is a golden opportunity to influence the hearts and minds of decision makers and to share powerful images with the world. In response, we planned LightHawk's most ambitious flight campaign to date.

"Flooding shows us first-hand what sea level rise will do."

For the January 2019 king tide, we flew 21 flights in two days, covering thousands of miles, on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. We flew influential photographers, journalists and state and local elected officials and experts who saw the undeniable damage occurring in real time.

From the icy waters of Maine, the sunny Florida Keys, to the crashing waves of California, up to the Pacific Northwest, LightHawk carried change makers who can directly combat climate change.

One passenger that day was Kellie Shay Hinze, Councilwoman for Encinitas City, on of 41 passengers LightHawk flew to witness the king tide.

"We have a pristine coastline... it's really a welcoming environment for recreation. And so to me, the top priority is that skinny stretch of beach where people love spending time," said Kellie. Flying over the king tide swell, "There was no sand. Zero beaches [remaining]. The waves were pounding right up to the cliffs. I see the ocean every day, but the perspective from above and so close to the shore was exceptional."

OUTCOME: Kellie's team is defining ways to combat sea level rise and climate change, and working to protect the vulnerable infrastructure she saw during her LightHawk flight.

"Without LightHawk's help..." is a universal response we receive from passengers, and a description of incredible conservation outcomes that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.

This fall, LightHawk partnered with the Southern Interior Land Trust (SILT), a Canadian nonprofit that works to acquire fish and wildlife habitats for habitat connectivity in British Columbia. SILT facilitates research on how lynx and bobcats move across landscapes straddling the Canada and the US border. In Washington, lynx are state-listed as endangered, while in British Columbia, they're commercially harvested for fur. Collecting lynx and bobcat movement data is critical to improving how the cats are managed on both sides of the border, and to prioritize migration corridors to help lynx populations recover in Washington. Bobcats share summer habitat with lynx, and knowing how lynx interact with bobcats will help managers in both countries protect habitat effectively for both species.

Quickly collecting the collars and the precious movement data they contain is paramount— if winter hits before the collars are located the batteries would die and the data would be lost.

OUTCOME: With Volunteer Pilot Dave Riffle's expert aerial backcountry navigating skills, SILT was able to pinpoint the collar locations, two of which would have likely never have been recovered otherwise due to their remote location.

Without LightHawk, our partners would have to track down the cats' radio collars on foot and snowmobile over rugged terrain, an extremely difficult, time consuming and potentially dangerous job.

"It is very gratifying to feel that I am making a difference right here, right now."

LightHawk's Volunteer Pilots bring incredible dedicaton to conservation. Making an impact "is the greatest reward of my work with LightHawk. When we are flying missions, it is very gratifying to feel that I am making a difference right here, right now," writes lynx mission pilot, Dave Riffle, who joined LightHawk in 2017. His dedication goes beyond flight. "SILT Executive Director, Al Peatt, and I became good friends after our LightHawk mission. He extended an invitation following the flight to join the effort to live trap, tranquilize and collar new lynx during the winter. i joined SILT's team to ride out in a snowmobile for the daily "trap" check. Helping to collar a lynx, to feel the warmth of its fur despite the -5ºF temps, gave me a new perspective on the importance of protecting habitat and wildlife migration corridors between our two countries," said Riffle.

Photo: VP Dave Riffle helps trapper (and SILT Presidnet) Ross Everatt measure a tranquilized and radio-collard Canada lynx. Alan Peatt.

LightHawk's work is making a difference for the many species we fly to research and protect.

A California condor suns itselt. LightHawk transports and tracks these highly endangered birds. Photo: National Park Service

Where do you find a 60 mile wide river, and the only place on earth where crocodiles and alligators live side by side?

The "River of Grass" we call the Everglades is a world heritage site and incredibly important to wildlife and people. Yet it's been shrinking at an alarming rate—now only 11% of its original size—as water is diverted and wetlands are drained for development. it's one of the earth's largest ecological restoration projects, and one of LightHawk's Flagship Projects. We are committed to a brighter future for the people and wildlife there.

"[Flying with LightHawk] was an unforgettable experience. That's a cliché but it's literally true—I will never forget that flight," commented Audubon Magazine editor, Andy McGlashen. On his flight, Andy documented an unprecedented explosion in the number of wading birds in the Everglades last spring.

"The Everglades are the most important habitat for wading birds anywhere in North America— big, charming species like roseate spoonbills and wood storks. But their populations in South Florida have plummeted by almost 90% since the early 20th century because of changes to the ecosystem wrought by development."

Yet McGlashen and aerial photographer, Mac Stone, share a glimmer of hope. "The huge boom in wading bird numbers last spring was a really important story of Audubon because it show that, when conditions are right, these birds can still bounce back," shared McGlashen. And the bird boom shows that this effort is working. "As efforts continue to restore the historic flow of water through the Everglades, there is hope that restoration will make these kinds of boom years more common. We may still be able to reverse those long-term [wading bird] population declines," noted McGlashen.

A threatened wood stork nests in the Everglades. LightHawk helped to find increasing populations of these wetland dependent birds. Mac Stone/Audubon

"The couple of hours I spent viewing the region from Volunteer Pilot Kelly Gottlieb's Cessna P210 helped me understand the Everglades in a much deeper way than I did from all my prior reporting...Viewing the birds from above conveyed the sheet size of the colonies, and the way they interacted with their habitat in a way that would not have been possible from the ground."

OUTCOME: "It's essential for the public to understand why a long, complicated restoration that costs billions of dollars is worthwhile. The wading birds are an indicator of the ecosystem's health, and their recovery will give Floridians and visitors to the Everglades a clear, colorful signal that the work is paying off," says McGlashen.

Our LightHawk Pilots

VP Roy Lewallen. Benjamin Drummond.

Pilot Awards

Every year we present awards at our annual Fly-In to recognize our dedicated Volunteer Pilots.

Our Partners

We search North America for the most effective conservation organizations that are doing meaningful work that can be greatly enhanced by aviation. Each year we engage more than 100 partners in project-based work, which results in nearly 300 flights, each with measurable benefits for nature.

Our Finances

Every penny of our revenue comes from the generosity of individual donors, foundations, and partners as shown below. About one-third of all our support is a result of our volunteer pilots donating their plane, fuel, and time.

One of LightHawk's fundamental principles is that every expense is evaluated and must help us achieve our mission. We allocate every dollar of our expenses to create successful conservation outcomes.

Contributed Revenue: During FY 2019 LightHawk received $1,992,958 from foundations, in-kind gifts, and generous donors like you. You enabled LightHawk to achieve the conservation successes shown in this annual report. Thank you!

Get Involved

Give to LightHawk: Your gift will move conservation at the speed of flight, and that's what the earth needs most right now. Please give.

Fly for LightHawk: Are you a pilot with 1,000 pilot-in-command hours? We're seeking new volunteer pilots with access to aircraft across North America.

Partner with LightHawk: Our aviation conservation experts are ready to help your organization achieve more. Flight are entirely free for qualified partners.

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