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 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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”