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.
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
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.”
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
“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.”
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.
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.”
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
“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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