Flying on the Wings of Conservation
EcoFlight tours Bacalar Chico Nature Preserve
EcoflightHigh above the blue-green waters of northern Ambergris Caye, Ecoflight’s chief pilot Bruce Gordon banked the turbo-prop airplane to show his passengers the lush tropical terrain encompassing the Bacalar Chico Nature Preserve. Gordon was joined in the educational flight by representatives of Green Reef, the Peace Corps, and Edwardo Brown of Ambergris Today.

The flight aboard the small, cramped aircraft this Monday morning was one of several that EcoFlight, a non-profit organization based in Aspen, Colorado, was conducting above Ambergris Caye and other areas of Belize for about one week. Bruce Gordon, President of EcoFlight, has been involved in conservation flying for over 20 years and spearheaded the conservation flying movement in Central America. Gordon has also been visiting Belize since the early eighties and is familiar with the changes that have taken place over the years.

Ecoflight Plane“Back then, there was much more undeveloped terrain and fewer roads, of course, but Belize is still doing good with its conservation efforts,” Gordon told Ambergris Today. “There has to exist a balance between a country’s development and its conservation efforts; so far, not many great changes have affected this country.”

EcoFlight advocates for the protection of remaining wilderness and wildlife habitat through the use of small aircraft, and provides educational programs designed to encourage an environmental stewardship ethic among citizens of all ages. The aerial tours provide elected officials, community leaders, scientists and the media a first-hand, bird’s eye view of issues affecting terrestrial and marine habitats, like Bacalar Chico, Hol Chan, the Chiquibul National Park, and Bladen Preserve in Belize. It is to be noted that more than one-fifth of Belize’s total land mass is dedicated to nature reserves.

Rocky Point“We have a strong educational slant to our work, educating young and old alike,” Jane Pargiter, Assistant to Bruce Gordon, told Ambergris Today. “Our young adult program is called the Kestrel Project and combines round-table discussions between youth and local experts, with first-hand aerial observation. Viewing the land from the air, students feel a sense of responsibility, urgency, and empowerment that can last a lifetime. We fly students from middle school age through graduate school and have a number of great programs. In the USA, we focus on flying any issues of environmental concern in the Rocky Mountains, from New Mexico through Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, up into the Yukon area in Canada.”

Bacalar ChicoA few Guardians of the Reef youths were also slated to fly in the EcoFlight tours, along with Mayor Elsa Paz and the U.S. Ambassador to Belize. “We are also flying BFREE, (the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education), the Belize Zoo, The Peregrine Fund (for the Harpy Restoration Program), the University of Belize (looking at saving Mangrove Islands), and the University of Michigan – to examine the locations and spatial arrangement of wetlands that will be invaded by African tilapias,” said Jane Pargiter.

Last year, March 2005, the Peregrine Fund and the Belize Harpy Eagle Restoration Program called on EcoFlight to go to Belize and assist them in locating birds as part of a Harpy Eagle monitoring project. The eagles require large areas of intact lowland forest in order to successfully hunt and reproduce, and in order to protect these birds, it is necessary to conserve large tracts of forest, which contain some of the largest biodiversity in the world. In recent years, largely because of changes in U.S. environmental policy, EcoFlight’s work has been focused predominantly on the ever-growing issue of oil and gas development on Belize’s western public lands. On this trip to Belize, the EcoFlight team was also hoping in taking up some Mennonites from the Spanish Lookout area to the zone where oil exploration is presently taking place.

Monday morning’s flight over northern Ambergris was done with strong westerly winds blowing over the island, but pilot Bruce Gordon handled the aircraft pretty smoothly throughout the 45-minute tour. The aerial tour offered an honest and engaging perspective on the landscape above Bacalar Chico, where passengers could see the precious natural resources of the island and the vulnerability that the landscape is exposed to due to the impacts of industrial scale and resource extraction.