View of Yampa Valley from above hopes to educate, advocate for river
From the town of Yampa, the Flat Tops seem like a distant wall, separating meadows from the more arid terrain to the West. But from the sky, the wilderness expands beyond the horizon with snowy ridge after snowy ridge towering over the White River National Forest.
These mountains serve as the headwaters to the Yampa River. The snow that melts here gives life to the river, as it meanders through northwest Colorado before joining the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument.
However, the snow so far this year is lacking, and measurement sites near the Bear River — which eventually turns into the Yampa River near the town of the same name — are reading below average. For more than two decades, the region has been entrenched in drought.
“We’re in a point in river-related planning that we’re looking at climate change impact and the future of the river,” said Lindsey Marlow, executive director of Friends of the Yampa. “It’s an ecosystem, and we’re trying to ensure that we understand where it’s going and then how we adapt and change to that.”
Friends of the Yampa partnered with EcoFlight to fly over the Yampa River on Friday, Feb. 4, documenting the river from above and providing a rare view that hopes to draw attention and spur advocacy for these natural landscapes.
The flight left Steamboat Springs and flew over the Flat Tops Wilderness Area before following the White River west. From there, the plane turned north to Dinosaur National Monument, where the Yampa has its confluence with the Green River amid high canyon walls.
The plane then followed the river east over Craig and Hayden, two communities that may never have sprouted up without the river nearby.
“When you fly over the Yampa when it is covered with snow, you look more at the formations — how the river formed the valley,” Marlow said. “One thing I always take away from these flights is, ‘Wow, such an amazing river.’”
The flights are meant to give their passengers the same appreciation for the river that Marlow has, with the plane serving as a platform that offers a unique perspective to teach and inspire.
“We use the airplane as a platform to educate and advocate for the environment and give people a new perspective of landscape issues,” said Michael Gorman, program coordinator for EcoFlight. “Seeing it from the air really helps tie a lot of the issues together in a way that looking at a map or just talking about it doesn’t quite do.”
EcoFlight does about 120 of these flights every year, looking at environmental issues across the West, and takes decision-makers, advocates, members of the media and students on the planes.
Also on Friday’s flight was Hayden Town Manager Mathew Mendisco. When flying over the town, Mendisco asked the pilot to ensure Hayden passed under his side of the plane, hoping to see it from a perspective he never had before.
He explained how there is a lack of river access in Hayden, with the nearest spot being at the pump station several miles to the east. The nearest spot to get out downstream is Yampa River State Park — a roughly 13-mile float that’s often too long for many river users.
Mendisco is working on getting river access in town, but he added he is focused on ensuring the proper entity manages the new access point, because what is best for the town may not always be what is best for the river.
“Having river access is important but not as important as the river itself,” he said.
Marlow said access on the river through Dinosaur National Monument is tighter than ever this year, with rafting permits getting more and more competitive — an adjustment after years of the combined effects of drought and overuse.
“It seems like runoff is becoming earlier and earlier, and so our summer temperature floats are becoming shorter,” Marlow said. “All signs point to that is going to be the challenge. … We all need to adapt and take it seriously. Things are changing.”
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