Photo Credit: Jerry Monkman

From the Ground Up: February 2013

From Canada to Georgia, behind every project and every acre OSI protects, there are people. Whether they’re lifelong environmentalists or new to conservation, each person has a connection to the land that has inspired them to protect it. Their stories are as diverse as the landscapes they are dedicated to protecting.

In this installment of From the Ground Up, OSI’s Jeff Simms takes a trip high above the land to learn about the people who facilitate conservation on the ground.

Lighthawk From the Ground Up 
Bob Keller LightHawk pilot, photos: (r) Stephen Longmire and (l) J. Henry Fair


It’s amazing what you can see with a little perspective, like from 4,500 feet in the air.

That’s the kind of altitude that pilot Bob Keller climbs to on the flights he takes with OSI staff, both to monitor already-protected lands and to survey new sites for potential conservation projects.

The flights—which have taken Keller over the Adirondacks, the Catskills and the Hudson River Valley—are invaluable in that they give OSI staff the chance to see the land in a way that just can’t be duplicated on a map or a photograph, or even on the ground. But that’s only half of the story.

The flights are also provided to OSI free of charge, courtesy of LightHawk, an international, volunteer-based aviation organization that donates more than 350 flights a year to around 250 groups like OSI as part of its mission to “elevate conservation.”

“We started in 1979 as one person and one plane and now we have about 200 volunteer pilots who use their skills to help put complex environmental problems into perspective really clearly,” said Bev Gabe, LightHawk’s communications manager. “This is our way to help protect the special places and the wildlife that we love.”

OSI holds conservation easements on approximately 40,000 acres in New York State, and they are monitored for violations against the terms of the easements on a regular basis. Some of the properties are easily accessed by car or on foot, but with larger parcels, or when monitoring many parcels at once, the view from the air is usually unmatched.

“They’re incredibly helpful,” said Paul Elconin, OSI’s stewardship coordinator. “LightHawk has saved us several thousand dollars a year in staff time and travel expenses. To get to all of the properties that we own and steward, it would take days on foot. With LightHawk, we can do it in hours. It adds great efficiency to the work we do.”

Keller, 67, began flying in 1990, picking up the hobby mid-career while working as a financial consultant. He retired from the financial field several years later and began flying as a volunteer with LightHawk in 1994.

A recent flight above the Hudson Highlands took Keller and Elconin above huge, rolling swaths of protected land near the Black Rock Forest Consortium. The view from the sky can illustrate with ease the spread of suburban sprawl or, as is the case above the Black Rock Forest, the critical land linkages that OSI strives to create and preserve.

“From the air, especially once the leaves are down, you really get a good sense of what’s down there,” said Keller, who lives in Boonville, NY. “You get a really interesting perspective up here, especially when you’re trying to see from the air what makes sense for conservation, as far as connectivity.”

As the flight continued, Keller headed west toward the nearly 6,000-acre Sam’s Point Preserve and its pitch pine barrens and dramatic cliff faces—unique natural features that draw tens of thousands of visitors to the Shawangunks every year.

Keller said it was flying that drew him to land conservation, which over the years has played an increasingly significant role in his life. Since 2005 he has been on the board of the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust, where he currently serves as treasurer.

“I really became introduced to conservation through my flying,” he said. “I met so many interesting people and learned a lot from them. Their enthusiasm was infectious, you could say.”

In 1993 OSI secured a conservation easement on the Last Chance Ranch, which protects incredible views at the northern tip of the Adirondack High Peaks region. The easement not only preserves the views that hikers and backpackers have enjoyed for years en route to nearby Heart Lake; it also protects the headwaters of the west branch of the Ausable River, which fall within the easement.

Two years ago, a new road was being built near the ranch that presented a potential easement violation. Ultimately the roadwork proceeded with no problem, but a key LightHawk flight allowed OSI to quickly assess the situation.

“We have easements that range from several hundred acres to over 1,000 acres,” Elconin said. “Aerial photos help us a lot, but with a property that size we often don’t know what’s happening on the ground until we get up in the air, and that was the case in this situation.”

For Keller, flying for groups like OSI represents a special kind of satisfaction. To be able to do something he enjoys doing while helping to protect the environment at the same time, he said, is a one-of-a-kind win-win.

“I approach flying with a professional attitude,” he said. “The fact that I’m able to do this—flying the mission well, keeping everything safe—I feel good to be using my skills. It’s the satisfaction of doing something well.”


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