‘Bringing maps to life’
Looking down at Vail Pass from 12,000 feet, it all seems clear this is what the Gore Range looks like to an eagle.Spruce and fir trees, powdered white by an early season dusting, sparkle in the brilliant morning sunshine, each one casting a perfect, razor-sharp Christmas-tree shadow. Sinewy fingers of forested land reach north, deep into the rocky maw of the Gore Range, and south as far as the eye can see, toward the Sawatch Range and beyond.Then suddenly, directly below, the forest ends, cut off sharply by a shimmering asphalt snake: I-70, where it cuts across the heart of the Southern Rockies between Copper Mountain and Vail.Dave Kunkel’s small single-engine plane circles lazily, giving passengers a bird’s-eye view of Vail Pass. Along with rare Canada lynx that roam the area, the pass has become a focal point in a high-profile national "endangered linkages" campaign organized by the Wildlands Project, a group working to create a continent-spanning network of protected core habitat areas and corridors to connect them.Square-jawed, with a pilot’s squint, Kunkel has been flying over Colorado and the West for more than 30 years, about the same length of time he’s lived in the Eagle River Valley.Today’s flight is a Lighthawk mission, aimed at drawing attention to the linkage issue. Kunkel says he’s been volunteering for Lighthawk for about three years, helping provide an aerial perspective to some of the region’s most pressing land-use issues. Some of his recent flights, for example, have been over Wyoming, where proposed gas developments have drawn fire from conservation groups.Lighthawk is a group of volunteer pilots who donate their services in the U.S. and even internationally. Kunkel says he’s hoping to fly for the organization in Central America sometime in the future, where conservation groups and governments are also considering similar wildlife linkage issues. The organization reimburses pilots for fuel and some other costs, but Kunkel, who built and sold a software company, says he donates the whole flight. "I’m happy to be in a position where I’m able to do that," he says.Kunkel doesn’t characterize Lighthawk as an environmental group. "They don’t really take sides," he says. "It’s just a way to provide a unique perspective to see things that you can’t really see standing on the ground. Lighthawk tries to shed light without a particular agenda. What we do is make it harder for people to bend the truth," he says.Describing a recent flight over the Flat Tops Wilderness, Kunkel says the same trip by car or foot would be daunting, and it would take days to cover the same amount of ground. "It brings the maps to life," he says.The view from the sky sometimes helps forge consensus, Kunkel says. During one flight related to a wilderness proposal in Eagle County, Kunkel says his passengers included representatives from opposing camps. While they were slightly uncomfortable with each other to begin with, the flight helped reveal some common ground, he says."By the end of the flight, they were agreeing with each other on some things, saying they could draw some lines without hurting each others interests." Kunkel says he’s had similar experiences during some of his recent Wyoming flights.From his vantage point high in the sky, Kunkel says some of the biggest changes he’s seen in Colorado have been along the Front Range and along the I-70 corridor. In both areas, he’s seen the gaps and open spaces fill in the landscape."On the other hand, I also get the overwhelming impression there is still a lot of undeveloped open space out there," he says. "We’ve definitely had an impact on this Earth, but sometimes I think we’re even a little arrogant about that," he says, hinting at the hubris humankind displays in its assumptions about our role on the planet."The area we’ve settled in the West is tiny compared to what’s out there," Kunkel says.Without claiming to be a land-use or policy expert, Kunkel says that, as he views the scene from above, and considering the changes he’s seen in three-plus decades, he thinks planners and politicians in Colorado probably could have done a better job of balancing development with preservation. He’s about to move to a ranch near the White River and Meeker, and says part of the reason is the area reminds him of what the lower Vail Valley was like when he moved here in the early 1970s."Some of that pristine quality has really been lost to real estate development. They could have done a better job and still preserved economic growth," he says, at the same time acknowledging that he and his family enjoy some of the amenities that growth has brought. But still, he questions the dominant economic paradigm of our age: "I think the feeling is, you’ve got to grow like Topsy or die the history of the West is exploitation, and we need to get over it somehow. Ultimately it comes down to what’s sustainable," he says.But the topic is somewhat of a sacred cow in Colorado, Kunkel says, acknowledging that it’s hard to even broach the subject without getting people going.Looking to the future, Kunkel says he sees hopeful signs. "I do have some confidence. I talk to my kids and their friends and it seems there is a new ethic emerging. Of course, it was around in the ’60s, too, but it didn’t sustain," he says. “But none of my kids would dream of buying an SUV but then again, they don’t hesitate to drive their mom’s," he concludes with a laugh.
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