Rick Durden.

With what environmental organization are you affiliated?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I have recently become the executive director of LightHawk, sometimes referred to as “the wings of conservation.”

What does your organization do?

We work with other environmental and conservation organizations to provide free flights over environmentally threatened areas in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Central America. Several hundred environmental organizations regularly make use of the volunteer aircraft flown by LightHawk pilots. They take decision-makers, media, activists, researchers, governmental officials, and others for customized flights over damaged areas to show firsthand the effects of poor environmental decision making. By using an airplane, you can get the job done in a few hours instead of the days or weeks it would take on the ground, and often the areas we fly over are off-limits to those who would go in on the ground.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

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Come fly with me.

About half of my work is administrative, and the other half is fund-raising. We are uniquely hamstrung in that we are absolutely prohibited by the Federal Aviation Regulations to charge anything at all for our flights. They must be provided free of charge to the passengers, otherwise we are considered a commercial operation. Our volunteer pilots provide their airplanes for free — something that costs them from $100 to $400 each hour the airplane’s engine is running — so they make a huge contribution to environmental efforts on each flight they make.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

I got interested in flying and the outdoors as a child. I was in Boy Scouts and went hiking, canoeing, and camping frequently. I also started taking flying lessons because of the Boy Scouts (although one can’t do that anymore, sadly). I became a flight instructor while I was a freshman in college and flew professionally on a part-time basis to help pay for college and law school.

After graduating from law school, I specialized in aviation and space law, handling cases involving aircraft. In the ’80s, I read about the work LightHawk was doing for the environment through the use of airplanes and realized that finally there was something that would allow me to combine my two passions.

In 1991, when I had saved up enough money to buy a small airplane, I joined LightHawk and became one of its volunteer pilots. Over the years, I also did some of the organization’s legal work on a pro bono basis and joined the board of directors. Last summer, I realized that I had run out of challenges after 27 years of practicing law; I applied for the executive director position and was hired. The learning curve is steep, but I haven’t once been bored.

How many emails are in your inbox?


Where were you born? Where do you live now?

Born and grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. Now living in Grand Rapids, Mich.

What’s been the best moment in your professional life to date?

The day the Missouri Department of Natural Resources called to say that photos taken from a LightHawk flight I made had resulted in a $300,000 fine for the Doe Run Mining Company for illegal dumping of chemicals.

Who is your environmental nightmare?


What’s your environmental vice?

A very weird affection for racing and high speeds, particularly open-wheel racing and top-fuel dragsters as well as the National Air Races north of Reno where speeds hit 500 mph at 40 feet above the ground.

What are you reading these days?

Everything from media reports on environmental issues to world history to murder mysteries to a recent biography of Shakespeare.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

A Clean Water Act so effective that we could again drink water directly from our rivers and lakes as we could in the 1600s.

What’s your favorite TV show?

NYPD Blue.



What are you happy about right now?

Recently getting married to a woman who is more right for me than I could have ever dreamed.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Donate to LightHawk because our work helps make hundreds of other environmental organizations throughout this hemisphere more effective.

Soar Spot

Rick Durden, executive director of LightHawk.

Are observation flights over damaged ecosystems worth the combustion waste we pump into the air? Are you convinced you are part of the solution, rather than contributing to the problem?    — Howard Brown, New York, N.Y.

I firmly believe we are part of the solution because there are only about 200,000 general aviation aircraft (planes other than airline and military) in the U.S., and there are more cars than that in even very small cities. The vast majority of those airplanes do not fly more than a few times a month, and the pilot can regulate the fuel/air mixture ratio to get the most efficient fuel burn. Plus, the amount of combustion waste from general aviation airplanes is a tiny fraction of what comes from autos, lawn mowers, ATVs, chain saws, generators, etc.

Further, LightHawk flights usually go out with most seats occupied and allow our conservation partners to do in a few hours work that might take them weeks on the ground in a car or SUV — if ground travel would even be possible. Also, media or decision makers who do not have days or weeks of time in their schedules can fly over an area of concern in a matter of minutes. I have to say that LightHawk may be one of the more effective parts of the solution. We are all working for conservation, and when you are working on resource issues that involve vast expanses of land, sometimes the least damaging way to view these areas is from a small plane.

On top of that, most of our employees do not add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by commuting — they work in home offices.

How realistic is the prospect of a biodiesel jet engine? Are there other alternatives?    — Bana Hamze, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

At some point, we will have to move to other sources of fuel for all that we do, including flying. There is research going on in the area of aviation-power plants, and the result has been continually reduced emissions, especially in jet engines. To my knowledge, alternatives of many sorts — such as advanced electronic fuel-metering and ignition timing, hydrogen fuel cells, electric engines, and others — are being explored. Baylor University’s Institute for Air Science developed and is using a 100 percent ethanol-fueled airplane.

Are there landscapes or issues that particularly lend themselves to being viewed from the air? Inversely, are there points and issues that aren’t effectively made from the air?    — Bryan Wentzell, Hallowell, Maine

The damage done by oil and gas wells — especially in animal migration paths — is especially dramatic from aloft. And there is no better way to do annual manatee counts. We’ve also located fish spawning sites, helped get amazingly detailed photos of coral reefs, and demonstrated the flow of pollutants into a river, lake, or seashore. We helped crocodile researchers find additional ponds near their research base in a rainforest — a flight of 30 minutes gave them more information than they’d gotten in years, even with satellite photos. We have been able to document sea-turtle nesting sites, long-term change to offshore islands, illegal logging, illegal ORV [off-road vehicle] use in protected lands, and illegal user-created roads.

Aerial assessment of lands is often key to conservation planning, helping set priorities for spending limited funds. For organizations that must monitor thousands of acres of land protected by easements, flight support is utterly essential and frequently exposes conditions and trends that would not always have been detected through ground monitoring until the damage became severe.

There have been times when I went into a flight wondering how in the world there would be anything to actually see and was very pleasantly surprised when an airplane proved to be ideal for the particular project.

While aerial reconnaissance is extremely helpful in many cases, there are some activities where one has to get on the ground or under the water. From above, we can help pick out the best routes for wildlife corridors between protected areas, but in heavily forested areas, we can rarely determine if there is any wildlife, other than birds, present.

Have you ever seen evidence of tree removal in wilderness areas, especially of larger old-growth trees? Have you been able to see and help identify unauthorized roads or ORV trails in protected areas, especially protected forests and wilderness areas? Can you help wildlife biologists with actual wildlife population monitoring in difficult-to-get-to areas?    — Ruth S. Sperling, Pearblossom, Calif.

Yes to all of the above (although the tree removal on protected land was not in the U.S.). LightHawk recently made a flight in Colorado with a TV news crew to show the illegal ORV trails being created and used in a roadless area. We have flown numerous wildlife biologists over remote areas to monitor grizzly bears, pronghorn, caribou, wolverine, buffalo, and a number of other animals, as well as offshore to monitor habitat for endangered species such as coho and Atlantic salmon.

When you take people up to photograph, what becomes of those photos?    — Rick Groshong, South Miami, Fla.

The organizations that take photos and videos from LightHawk flights keep the results and use them as they see fit. We do ask that if they are published that they attribute the flight to LightHawk. We also work hand-in-hand with groups that do satellite imagery, primarily SkyTruth. Our aerials provide supplemental photos that help provide “ground-truthing” of satellite images.

Why aren’t LightHawk photos plastered all over environmental publications, websites, and media outlets?    — Lisa Mayo, Germantown, Md.

A significant number of the thousands of photos from LightHawk flights do make it into the press; unfortunately, it is often without attribution. National Geographic, Smithsonian, and a number of other magazines have used photos shot from LightHawk flights. Our conservation partners have libraries of photos and videos they have taken from LightHawk flights and regularly make use of them in their publications. Some photos have appeared in technical and scientific publications as well.

What kind of plane do you have? Do you use it for anything besides LightHawk?    — Name not provided

Currently I own a one-third interest in a Cessna 150, which is not exactly great for LightHawk operations, so I rent a Cessna 172, 210, or Beechcraft Bonanza as needed. I use the Cessna 150 for transportation on trips of 150 miles (straight line) or less because it is two to three times faster than using a car, burns unleaded automobile fuel, and uses much less than a car for the same trip. I also use the airplane for recreation (the fall colors here were spectacular), and my daughter is using it for some of her flying lessons.

While I applaud your efforts, I myself would like for airplanes to stop buzzing over my home. Do you fly only at certain hours?    — Brenda Cushman, Plymouth, Mass.

For LightHawk, I fly when the conservation partner and I feel is best for the task at hand and the weather is good. For all flights, I am aware of the fact that the airplane I fly makes noise, so I do my best not to fly low over residential areas or where there are outdoor gatherings of people. I’ve never fully understood why developers insist on building houses so close to airports that have been around for decades, but it’s a fact of life, so when operating from airports that have become surrounded by homes, I do my best to climb out as steeply as is safe, so as to minimize the area affected by the noise from the airplane. By comparison and from an absolute decibel measurement, the noise emitted by the majority of general aviation airplanes flying over a residential area at the minimum legal altitude (1,000 feet above the highest obstruction) is less than the neighbor’s Harley as it goes 25 mph down the street.

I fly all the time because of my work. I have heard that flying is the worst thing a person can do to the environment. What can I do as a passenger to mitigate the effects of my traveling?    — Alex Yuan, Taipei, Taiwan

I’m curious about the data you have that indicates flying is the worst thing a person can do to the environment; if you look at the horrible things a person can do to the environment, it’s not even near the top. From the perspective of your job, you must travel, I assume. If you and all of the people in the airplane were to do so by car, you would be emitting far more than your share in the airliner, and each person would expose him or herself to a vastly greater risk of injury or death to go that distance. A train would be better than the airliner, although slightly less safe, and you have to factor the time value into any equation involving travel. Current commercial airliners are far, far more fuel efficient and emit much less than the jets of only 20 years ago.

In your opinion, how successful would an NGO program like LightHawk be in a developing country like China?    — B. Gorringe, St. Paul, Minn.

I think it would be extremely difficult to build a successful program. Right now, the rigid governmental control of general aviation in China means that, to my knowledge, there are fewer than 20 general aviation airplanes in the country, and the paperwork necessary to make even one flight can take, I’m told, months or years. I suspect the government might not appreciate an organization that could dramatically demonstrate that the country’s policies have resulted in massive pollution and destruction of the landscape.

Is LightHawk operating in every state? Where can I donate?    — Jerry Broadbent, Bucoda, Wash.

To my knowledge, LightHawk has made flights in every state in the U.S., although its coverage in the Midwest is currently limited because we do not have funding for a dedicated program manager in that region. Because LightHawk has become so well-known in the conservation community, we are currently turning down some requests for flights because we don’t have the resources to meet the need. We have started a major fund-raising drive to expand our operations. A donation would be very much appreciated. You may mail a check to P.O. Box 653, Lander, WY, 82520, or use a credit card on LightHawk’s website.