LightHawk: 2017 Flying To Save The Earth

“What one sees from the air is so simple and so beautiful, I cannot help feeling that it would do something wonderful for the human race – rid it of so much smallness and pettiness — if more people flew.” – Georgia O’Keefe

We Fly to Save Nature

The natural world is in peril, but we believe it can be saved.

Recognizing that our health is connected to the health of nature, we bear the responsibility to conserve our environment for the benefit of future generations.

At LightHawk, we employ critical and unique tools in creating positive, non-partisan change for our environment — aviation and the aerial perspective.

Hand-in-hand with our trusted conservation partners and volunteer pilots, we are united in our resolve to bring aviation to bear as a powerful tool to benefit conservation across the nation.

How We Create Change

LightHawk creates change for our environment by crafting effective conservation flight campaigns with measurable outcomes that benefit nature.

But crafting an effective flight campaign presents many challenges. That’s why we employ skilled conservationists adept at planning and executing complex flights. In our process, we:

What We Protect

What LightHawk does is more than the tool it employs.

While flight - our conservation tool - is how we create change, change itself is what we do. From our decades of experience, we know that aviation has the greatest ability to create change through project-based work in five distinct conservation areas.

Conservation Initiatives are the five areas where our conservation staff are focused, and we are experts at maximizing flight’s value for them. These initiatives are: conserving landscapes, protecting oceans and coasts, ensuring species survival, safeguarding rivers and guiding smart growth.

Sorted within these initiatives the majority of our work is organized into either Flagship Projects or Strategic Projects. Our other flights are called Flights of Opportunity.

Flagship Projects are large-scale, multi-year initiatives in which we work with many partners towards long-term and large-scale goals. These projects result in hundreds of flights over several years and address the biggest conservation issues of our age.

Strategic Projects are more focused in area and scope, and have a shorter life. These reach their outcomes sooner, involving fewer partners, and yet, can also require many flights to achieve their goals.

Flights of Opportunity are one-time flight requests outside of an established project, often testing a new idea, working with a new partner, or beginning work in a new area. These flights broaden our focus and impact, and still produce significant results.

Our Conservation Initiatives

2017 Flights — Planned & Completed

Unrestrained logging in Canada's Great Bear Rainforest before it was protected thanks to the efforts of LightHawk and others. Photo: Garth Lenz/LightHawk

Conserving Landscapes

Healthy landscapes are crucial to our well-being and nature’s ability to thrive.

We fly to conserve critical and sensitive landscapes, their ecosystems and the wildlife that call them home. We address threats that would cause damage and advocate for science-based land management. We seek to increase the amount of public and private land conserved to be enjoyed by future generations.

Flagship Project:

A Few Initiative Outcomes:

Story: Partnering to Protect the Trail

The Appalachian Trail is both one of America’s greatest icons and one of its greatest conservation success stories.

But keeping it that way is no easy task.

LightHawk is taking to the skies with local partners in the fight to preserve this well-traveled landmark. In addition to its cultural and historic significance, the 2,191-mile hiking trail is one of the nation’s most important greenways, protecting migratory flyways and the headwater streams for several major East Coast watersheds.

With the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), LightHawk is supporting the expansion of the existing 250,000-acres of preserved lands adjacent to the trail, providing a buffer to sustain clean water and maintain wildlife migration patterns.

In October, LightHawk’s flight with the Conservancy in West Virginia showcased preservation efforts to The Volgenau Foundation, as Conservancy staff sought funding to expand their regional efforts.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy staff, and The Volgenau Foundation members with VP David Warner. Photo: Laura Belleville/LightHawk

The flight showed how vulnerable the landscape is to encroaching development, and provided a valuable connection between the Conservancy and the foundation, said ATC’s Laura Belleville.

“I don’t think we could have connected with the donors as effectively without it, or shown them what the real issues are,” she said.

The Volgenau Foundation later decided to support the Conservancy’s efforts with a $3 million grant to promote landscape connectivity, wildlife migration and climate change resilience. Seeing the encroaching development from the air helped put the issue into context, said Foundation manager Maryanna Kieffer.

“Our flight was wonderful — it really did help to cement our support of the ATC with such a large gift,” Kieffer said.

Photo: The Appalachian Trail seen over Harper’s Ferry. Credit: Laura Belleville/LightHawk

King tides showcase how vulnerable New Hampshire coastal development is to climate change caused sea level rise. Photo: Surfrider Foundation/LightHawk

Protecting Oceans & Coasts

Thriving oceans and coastlines are home to incredible life and provide a bounty of wellness for humans.

We fly to protect our sensitive coastlines, estuaries, oceans and sea life. We monitor the health of marine protected areas, work to increase safeguards, show the potential impacts of climate change, and shine a light on pollution or other damage to these life-sustaining areas.

Flagship Project:

A Few Initiative Outcomes:

Story: Saving a Climate Change Ally

While eelgrass may appear to be scrawny and brittle, it is indeed a mighty fighter.

Long, slender and wavy underwater seagrass — once prolific along our nation’s coasts — can be an important ally in the fight against climate change. Seagrass meadows consume carbon dioxide, release oxygen and store carbon at a rate that surpasses a similarly-sized area of forested land.

It is also an essential habitat for many commercially and recreationally-prized fish and shellfish, and it helps decrease shore erosion by reducing potentially destructive wave energy.

But seagrass is in danger. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Long Island Sound where more than 90 percent of the remarkable, three-foot-tall meadows it once boasted have all but disappeared.

Fishers Island, located just off the coast of Connecticut, has some of the most exceptional remaining seagrass meadows along its shoreline. In the summer of 2017, LightHawk soared with partners to monitor the effects of boating on the island’s seagrass.

LightHawk flew seven flights, which allowed scientists from The Nature Conservancy to monitor and document recreational boating activity across 22 miles of coastline.

Chantal Collier and Sally McGee with LightHawk pilot Bob Keller over Fishers Island. Photo: Chantal Collier/LightHawk

Monitoring the interaction between boaters and the seagrass is important because of the physical and persistent damage that boat propellers, anchoring, and moorings can cause to seagrass. Protecting what seagrass remains is a priority, said Chantal Collier, Long Island Sound Program Director for The Nature Conservancy.

The flights were the only way Collier and her team could accumulate this data, which will be used to help the local community and state natural resource managers assess boating pressure and seagrass area use intensity to identify potential seagrass management areas, she said.

“Without the cooperation of LightHawk, the Conservancy would not be able to conduct these flights on its own, so it is great to have an active and cooperative partner,” Collier said.

Photo: Documenting eelgrass degradation at Fishers Island. Credit: Chantal Collier/LightHawk

An endangered wolf pup being transported by LightHawk. Photo: Lincoln Athas/LightHawk

Ensuring Species Survival

Protecting endangered animals from extinction is our enduring responsibility.

We fly to restore threatened and endangered species back to sustainable populations. Aviation allows scientists to gather otherwise unattainable population and habitat data critical to species survival, and supports captive breeding programs through animal transport and survey.

Story: Flying to Save a Species

When a California condor goes missing, the clock starts ticking.

With the ability to travel up to 160 miles a day in search of food, these critically endangered birds present a unique challenge for those entrusted to keep them from extinction.

Once only 22 birds remained. Breeding programs boosted wild and captive populations to about 450. As each individual is critical to the survival of the species, managers spring into action when a condor disappears, often calling upon LightHawk and its pilots to help track them down.

With aerial radio frequency receivers mounted on aircraft, and a LightHawk pilot in the cockpit, scientists can scan in an hour what would normally take a day’s worth of driving. Last year, LightHawk volunteer pilots flew seven such telemetry flights totaling nearly 30 flight hours, canvasing thousands of square miles to locate several birds.

Even when flights result in bad news, the death of a condor and its expedited recovery can lead to important discoveries. Radio signals from the air can quickly point the way for ground scientists to recover enough remains on which to perform a necropsy. That procedure reveals valuable data for science and public awareness about the dangers of lead bullets and shot, which fatally poison condors after they prey on carrion left by hunters.

Searching for California condors. Photo: Estelle Sandhaus/LightHawk

LightHawk also supports the restoration of this species by assisting with captive breeding programs through transportation of birds or eggs. This relocation program helps increase genetic diversity in breeding, keeping populations healthier.

In November, LightHawk pilots flew a bird from the Oregon Zoo to California for breeding, avoiding the potentially life-threatening stress that comes with commercial flights or ground transportation.

“Our keeper staff would have been hard pressed to make this drive 16 hours down and 16 hours back,” said Kelli Walker of the Oregon Zoo. “Now (condor) 685 will have a new mate after his quarantine period and a new genetic line will be formed.”

The Delaware River provides drinking water to 5% of the nations population. We fly to protect this resource from pollution and contamination from nearby development. Photo: Jim Wright/LightHawk

Safeguarding Rivers

Rivers and wetlands form a network of life that flows through our lands and communities.

We fly to keep those waters and their natural ecosystems healthy, and keep human communities thriving. We work to restore altered river systems to their native states, protect them from pollution, sedimentation and diversion, and safeguard the integrity of our drinking water.

Flagship Projects

A Few Initiative Outcomes:

Story: Water and Air — Combining Forces

When a coal train derailed sending 3,500 tons of coal sliding down the banks of Montana’s Clark Fork River, LightHawk’s wings were quickly in the air to document the damage.

The urgent flight request from Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper is an example of our budding partnership with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a network of more than 150 Waterkeeper organizations across the nation.

In addition to helping Waterkeepers capture hearts and minds, LightHawk is ready to provide immediate assistance when critical threats to water quality are discovered.

In the case of the coal train spill, that meant capturing photos that raised local awareness of the issue, helping ensure the earth and water affected by the spill were restored.

Through this emerging partnership, we were also able to help Columbia Riverkeeper document the effects of the 50,000-acre Eagle Creek fire. The rapid-response flight gave Riverkeeper staff the aerial perspective needed to advocate for remediation of the landscape, and provide photos for the media.

“Capturing images and learning more about the impacts of a high profile fire will help Riverkeeper protect water quality in the future,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, Columbia Riverkeeper’s executive director.

Recently we have deepened relationships with many other Waterkeeper organizations, partnering with them to conduct regular pollution monitoring flights.

Staff from San Francisco Baykeeper, LightHawk and pilot Paul Kutler before a flight assessing pollution and potential regular pollution monitoring flights.

The aerial perspective left San Francisco Baykeeper’s field investigator Sienna Courter “amazed” by how many ways flight could help their efforts saying she discovered pollution sources she was unaware of before the flight.

“There were a few potential polluting facilities that I’d seen from the water with limited visibility, and seeing them from the air gave me a much clearer perspective,” Courter said.

Documenting land use balance issues in the Santa Cruz River area. Photo: Jeff Smith/LightHawk

Guiding Smart Growth

Land use change is an unavoidable part of our society and future, yet it is our duty to grow in harmony with nature.

We fly to inform smart growth and minimize our impacts on the natural world. We assist community planners in gathering data, allowing them to see growth as they have never seen it before. We work to increase quality of life for citizens by helping them see the connection between their community and the natural world.

Flagship Project

Story: Preserving a Kingdom of Life

In the arid Southwest, water is king.

Its castle includes the many delicate cottonwood-shaded corridors, known as riparian areas, through which rivers flow, creating a sustaining home to a wealth of flora and fauna.

Between Tucson and the Mexican border one such kingdom is perhaps most crucial — the delicate San Pedro River, home to a diverse range of wildlife, and critical stopover for millions of annually-migrating birds.

Across the nation, habitat loss is the biggest threat to birds just as it is in the San Pedro area. Preserving and improving habitat along riparian areas is the most efficient way to save them. However, a recently-proposed 27,000-home mega-development near the San Pedro threatens the delicate balance the area requires to sustain life. Reports say the development, as proposed, could cause the river and its groundwater to run dry.

Flying over the San Pedro River. Credit: Nicole Gillett

LightHawk recently took to the sky with Tucson Audubon to give staff a first-hand view of what’s at stake and how to better advocate for its preservation.

“It is clear that — even though we groundtruth everything to the best of our ability — there is no substitute for the ability to visualize the project in context and airtruth our ground observations,” said former Audubon board member and long-time volunteer Christina McVie. “We could never do what we do as well without the LightHawk perspective.”

With LightHawk's help, Tucson Audubon staff are enhancing their outreach and advocacy, engaging partners and donors to further tell the story of this critical area, while advocating for proper protections for the water resources. The aerial experience is “invaluable to us,” said Audubon conservation advocate Nicole Gillett.

“The story we are able to tell from the sky is much more clear and impactful than the story we are able to show from the road,” she said. “Bringing up donors and decision makers on future LightHawk flights could potentially make a huge difference in how they perceive the development.”

Our Pilots

Volunteer Pilot Dan Thompson helping document North Dakota oil fields. Photo: Bruce Farnsworth/LightHawk

Pilot Awards

Each year we present awards at our annual Fly-In to the best and most dedicated volunteer pilots. Although we highlight the efforts of these pilots, each LightHawk pilot is crucial to our success.

Our Partners

We search the nation for effective conservation partners doing meaningful work that could be greatly enhanced by aviation. Each year we engage more than 100 partners in project-based work, which results in nearly 400 flights, each with a measurable benefit.

Whether a local land trust or a national conservation alliance, we work extensively with our partners to help them achieve their goals. Our preflight conservation planning and post-flight follow up empowers partners to fully utilize the aerial experience to hasten meaningful change, and advance our conservation priorities. Some of our most-recognizable partners include:

Our Finances

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

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

How To Get Involved

Pilots: We provide opportunities for 1,000 PIC hour pilots to give back to nature while experiencing exciting and purposeful aviation. We’re seeking new volunteer pilots with access to aircraft across the nation. Apply online here.

Partners: We bring aviation and the aerial perspective to shine light on America’s top conservation priorities. Our aviation conservation experts are ready to help you achieve more. Flights are entirely free for qualified partners. Work with us.

Supporters: We offer numerous ways for supporters to help us create meaningful environmental change for generations to come. Contact us to find out the many ways we can make an impact together, or make a gift today. Support our work.

CEO Letter: Dedicated to Constantly Improving

I recently spent some time at a simulator training facility to brush up on my instrument flying skills. I was dismayed at how rusty that part of my flying had become, but the experience was enlightening.

Even though I wasn’t in a real aircraft, skills and procedures returned from the dark recesses of memory, and so too did the sense of art and excitement this precision flying creates.

What it most rekindled, though, was the sense of purpose I’ve always had as a pilot. Sure, there is an inherent joy in flying, but the ability to achieve things only possible through aviation has been central to my passion for it.

LightHawk is built on that idea. We’re not just a nice addition to the conservation toolbox. Flight is a magical and awe-inspiring experience that simply cannot be replaced.

The work we do is impossible by any other means — Google Maps and drone imagery serve some needs, but real change for nature requires a plane and a pilot executing a very well-planned experience built by skilled conservation planners.

Our work also requires you, the steadfast supporter on whom we depend and for whom we have assembled this report. We hope that you’ll share this and spread the word about our work to your friends, colleagues and loved ones.

And we hope you’ll do one more thing — tell us how we can improve.

Like my experience in the simulator, LightHawk too should seek reminders of how we can improve from the people that help us create the change we seek.

We’d love to hear from you. You may email me at terriwatson@lighthawk.org or fill out an anonymous form at bit.ly/TalkLightHawk with your suggestions for how we can keep getting better. Thank you for being part of our family.

Fair winds and blue skies,

Terri Watson, CEO

Created By
Light Hawk

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