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LightHawk: The Power of Aerial Images to Benefit Conservation

12 Jul 2017

by Brian Smith, LightHawk

Seeing is believing.

It’s an idea at the cornerstone of the work we do as a non-partisan conservation non-profit group. We believe that people will make the right decision when given a clear picture of an issue and what’s at stake.

We have seen the magic of the aerial perspective at work for some of North America’s biggest conservation initiatives. Our passengers regularly report “ah-ha” moments when flying with us. But the limit of flying in a small aircraft is just that — the experience is limited to the capacity of the plane.

For that reason, LightHawk has built partnerships with some of the best conservation photographers to bring that experience to the masses, helping promote awareness and illustrate impact.

Recently we flew photographer Benjamin Drummond for our partners at the Methow Headwaters Campaign. The campaign is focused on preventing large-scale copper mining in Washington’s beautiful Methow Valley. The valley lies at the southern end of the Quesnel Trough — a copper belt stretching 2,000 miles north into British Columbia. Just 50 miles north of the Methow is an 18,000-acre open pit copper mine estimated to contain five billion pounds of the mineral.

Drummond, assisted by LightHawk pilot Lane Gormley, captured powerful images of the pristine Methow Valley set against the existing Copper Mountain mine to the north. The contrast cemented “how incompatible a mine of this size is with the Methow Valley,” Drummond said.

“We flew three slow circles around the site, baffled by the scene of destruction,” he wrote. “But it was only when I got home and found tiny full-size pickup trucks in my 50 megapixel files that I truly appreciated the scale of the operation.”

Aerial photographs help people see a place in a new way and are “often the only way that I can visually capture the size and significance of a landscape-level conservation cause,” said Drummond, who has flow with LightHawk nine times for other causes across the Pacific Northwest.

“There's an inescapable aesthetic to the Earth from the above that can drive engagement with important issues,” Drummond said. “Small planes can help me access areas that are otherwise out-of-reach, either because of their remoteness or other restrictions.”

Above: Copper Mountain mine in British Columbia, looking south toward the United States border. Similar mining projects have been proposed for an area in Washington's Methow Valley. Photo by Benjamin Drummond / Methow Headwaters Campaign. Aerial support by LightHawkAbove: Copper Mountain mine in British Columbia, looking south toward the United States border. Similar mining projects have been proposed for an area in Washington’s Methow Valley. Photo by Benjamin Drummond / Methow Headwaters Campaign. Aerial support by LightHawk 

Above: Copper Mountain mine in British Columbia. This open pit mine is estimated to contain five billion pounds of copper and is located just 50 miles north of the Methow Valley. Photo by Benjamin Drummond / Methow Headwaters Campaign. Aerial support by LightHawk.

That sentiment is the same reason why aerial photography is the cornerstone of J Henry Fair’s work. Photographs made in his “Industrial Scars” series, now a book, are often described as ‘hauntingly beautiful.’ From the captivating swirling colors of pollution to the unimaginable scale of industrial development, the photographs J Henry makes are of scenes sequestered for a reason.

LightHawk aerial photo of snowcapped mountains and headwaters of Methow River in Washington

Above: The pristine headwaters of the Methow River in Washington, which are currently threatened by industrial-scale mining. Photo by Benjamin Drummond / Methow Headwaters Campaign. Aerial support by LightHawk.

“Being in a plane enables me to jump the tallest fence, cover long distances, and see what is hidden from most people,” he said. “Also, as terrestrial animals, the aerial view is inherently fascinating — who has not dreamed of flying?”

His goal is to stop the viewer and prompt a question.

“If the images were not beautiful and create a dissonance, they would not be effective,” he said.

LightHawk has flown J Henry 23 times since his first flight a decade ago. As an artist trying to show people their impact on the earth, he said LightHawk is essential in providing access and local knowledge.

“LightHawk is extremely valuable to the conservation community for a simple reason: people can’t understand something they can’t imagine,” he said. “If they can’t understand it, they can’t have a position on it. When a conservation group would make an argument for or against something, they must be able to show people what they are talking about. This is only possible if they can get to it and photograph it. Only LightHawk makes this possible.”

Aerial photo by LightHawk, waste impoundment at a copper smelter in Hurley, New Mexico

Waste impoundment at a copper smelter in Hurley, New Mexico. Photo by J Henry Fair. Aerial support by LightHawk

Featured photo at top: Little Blue Run Lake in Pennsylvania where 20 billion gallons of coal ash and smokestack scrubber waste has been dumped since 1975. The waste site was closed shortly after this image was made. Photo by J Henry Fair. Aerial support by LightHawk

LightHawk has been a beneficiary on multiple occasions here at Foundation Beyond Belief, a testimony to their commitment to scientific answers using innovative solutions. Our introduction to Lighthawk was in Q1 2013 when they received $7760.  They were chosen as our first consecutive donation project and received $9100 in Q1 2016, and $9050 in Q1 2017.  They have also worked in collaboration with two of our other beneficiaries- SkyTruth, the Q2 2017 Natural World beneficiary, and Colorado Wildfires Recovery, a Disaster Recovery Drive in 2012.

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