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ENVIRONMENT / AERIAL VIEW : Forests Shown From a Bird’s Perspective : Flying over clear-cut areas leaves strong images.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As Congress prepares to do battle with the Bush Administration over the future of the Northwest’s old growth forests, a conservation group has added a new weapon--an environmental air force.

The theory is that the only way to appreciate the impact of clear-cutting on a forest is to see it from the air. So far, several congressmen have taken up Project Lighthawk’s offer of free flights, and the reaction has been strong.

“It’s incredible, the destruction you can see on these mountaintops for as far as the eye can see,” said Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.), who recently went up in a Cessna 210 with his wife and a reporter over the Willamette Forest in Oregon.

“There is nothing like being up, firsthand, a couple thousand feet (and) looking down at the erosion from the road building, the drag lines and the patchwork crazy-quilt clear-cutting that you can see across the horizon,” he said.

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Forestry spokesmen say that view is misleading. In 20 years, the lands the congressmen see today will be covered with new trees as reforestation follows harvest, Chuck Burley of the Northwest Forestry Assn. said.

But the view from the air today is what Project Lighthawk is all about. The group’s lead flier and founder is Michael Stewartt, a 40-year-old Stanford dropout who earned his pilot’s license in the early ‘70s. During one early flight, he became concerned about the impact of a proposed coal-fired power plant at a site due north of the Grand Canyon.

“A coal-fired power plant there would have been crazy,” Stewartt said. “The plant would have been ringed by the most delicate of our national treasures--like the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion.”

He decided that the only way to let politicians and the public really see the potential effects would be to put them in the air for a bird’s-eye view. During the grass-roots struggle to stop the power plant, Stewartt gathered together five volunteer fliers, and the idea for Project Lighthawk was born.

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The power plant was never built.

Santa Fe-based Project Lighthawk now has 56 volunteer fliers, two Cessna 210 aircraft and a $600,000 annual budget. They have flown around the United States, Costa Rica and Belize, where the group was pivotal recently in getting a huge tract of rain forest protected as a national park and refuge.

Stewartt flies passengers over forests in the Pacific Northwest about four times a week. On the day he piloted Sikorski’s group, another volunteer took up Rep. Jim Jontz (D-Ind.), sponsor of a bill to preserve ancient stands of old-growth timber.

Obviously, congressmen could hire their own planes. “Saving taxpayers’ money by flying congressmen around is a fact, but it is not the point,” Stewartt said. “Congressman should be spending taxpayers’ money so they can do their job and look at what is going on across our national forests. This is public land.”

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