This article was first published in the Oct.16th edition of Steamboat Today.  By Scott Franz.

Students, from left, Ben Saheb, Jenna Wirtz, Xavier Rojas, and Ashley Basta are pictured during their Ecoflight tour of national parks. Photo: Ben Saheb.

Steamboat Springs — Colorado Mountain College student Ben Saheb said there were plenty of interesting things to look at outside the windows of the unique classroom he sat in last week. After riding in the backseat of a Cessna flying 12,000 feet above some of the country’s most notable national parks, he also said he won’t soon forget any of the things he learned.

“There was never a dull moment,” Saheb said about his three-day journey with Ecoflight, a nonprofit organization that each year flies a few students above natural landmarks across the country to examine environmental issues. “What you learn in a classroom you can easily forget. But the things you see and hear in an airplane really stick with you.”

Experiential learning

Saheb’s three-day journey began Oct. 10 when he and a student from CMC’s Glenwood Springs campus along with two students from the University of Colorado left Aspen for Flagstaff, Ariz., to meet with members of the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance, an organization that promotes social, economic and environmental justice in the San Juan Basin.

A Cessna with Ecoflight flies over the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area near Aspen last week. Photo by Ben Saheb.

From there, the students flew over wilderness areas in the Four Corners region and also hiked in some of the country’s more prominent national parks with conservation groups and locals who have been impacted by various forms of energy production.

While previous Ecoflight trips have provided students an opportunity to see and discuss the impacts and intricacies of climate change, Colorado’s pine beetle epidemic and renewable energy from the back seat of the Cessna, this year’s flight took Saheb on a tour of national parks in the American Southwest as pilots and instructors discussed the environmental issues the parks are facing as mines and oil and gas rigs creep closer to their borders.

The trip gave the students a bird’s-eye view of uranium mines and their proximity to a Havasupai Indian community living near Grand Canyon National Park, the effects of coal-fired power plants in Bryce Canyon and Mesa Verde National Park, and the environmental impact of oil and gas exploration and off-road vehicle use near Utah’s Cayonlands National Park.

Saheb, one of the first students to enroll in the Alpine Campus’ new Bachelor of Arts in sustainability studies program, said one of the more memorable landscapes he saw on his trip appeared outside his window somewhere between the Colorado border and Farmington, N.M.

“I learned how big of an impact a coal plant can have on a community,” he said. “I looked to the left and saw the back of the San Juan range in Colorado, and it was crystal clear. And to the right, I saw Farmington, and it was hazy and dark because of a nearby coal plant.”

Krysia Carter-Giez, Ecoflight’s director of outreach, said it’s these visual connections that make a student’s vantage point at 12,000 feet unique.

“To get the aerial perspective on any of these issues is so powerful and so valuable,” Carter-Giez said. “We use that aerial perspective all the time as we discuss environmental issues with conservation groups. There’s really no substitute for getting up in the air and seeing it from above.”

A unique perspective

Saheb said his trip gave him a unique perspective of what increased oil and gas exploration could look like across Routt County, a perspective he said he’s anxious to share as public bodies in the Yampa Valley continue to discuss and examine what impact an anticipated boom in oil exploration in the Niobrara shale formation will have.

A student blogger, Saheb said his trip also made him want to play more of a role as an activist to promote sustainability here in Steamboat.

“It was depressing to see how some of the land we flew over was degraded by coal, natural gas and uranium,” he said. “But when you get over the wilderness areas like the Maroon Bells, you can see how the land is thriving, and how much more beautiful and pristine it is. I wanted everything to look like that. Unfortunately, we live in a time when it just doesn’t work that way.”