Changing Planet

Flying Baja, A Pilot’s Adventure – Do Gold and Water Mix?

Guest post by volunteer pilot Will Worthington.

I’m joined by photojournalist Ralph Lee Hopkins as well as Fay Crevoshay and Sofia Gomez of Wildcoast for the hop from San Jose to La Paz on the third day of our adventure. Ralph brings a unique perspective to the flight both as a photographer who cares deeply about the Baja peninsula, and as Director of Expedition Photography for Lindblad Expeditions, an adventure travel outfit that promotes active exploration and engaged learning.

Sunrise and LightHawk’s Cessna 206, Baja Aerial Archive Project, Baja California, Mexico. image: (c) Ralph Lee Hopkins with aerial support by LightHawk

Government Hurdles

As we prepare the plane for our day’s journey, I’m reminded that many of the things we take for granted in the US are anything but routine to Mexican authorities. Having removed the cargo doors from the 206 to provide the best view in town of the landscape, we get a visit from the Comandancia, the ranking aviation authority. He informs us we would not be permitted to fly with the doors off and without written permission from the Mexican Government, Ralph would not be permitted to take photos at all. This puts a serious wrinkle in our plans for the day.

Airport security.
Airport security.

I respectfully informed the official that flying with doors off is a standard procedure for a Cessna 206 aircraft. He didn’t buy my explanation so I excused myself to retrieve the pilot operating handbook from the plane and found a paragraph in the Normal Procedures Section  – “Flight With Cargo Doors Removed”. Together, Fay and I were eventually able to convince the skeptical official that it would be ok and we would scrupulously follow every provision.

Now what to do about a photographer who would not be permitted to take photos? My colleague, Armando Ubeda, had secured the required permits for our flight series, but the official remained unswayed by our stack of official paperwork. Fay came to the rescue. She speaks Spanish faster than anyone I have ever heard and did not let the official come up for air for at least five minutes. After her rapid-fire plea, the Comandancia finally relented in the face of overwhelming odds, Fay herself, and seemed glad to have us on our way.

Gold or Water?

Once in the air, we flew north to La Paz to pick up passengers concerned about open pit mining projects ramping up in the mountainous area between the towns of La Paz and Todos Santos. Community members from Todos Santos rally under the slogan: “Water is more precious than gold” as they try to avoid what they see as irreparable and unnecessary damage to their fragile aquifers and desert landscape by proposed gold mines.

Los Cardones, proposed open-pit gold mine site, Sierra de la Laguna, Baja California, Mexico. image: (c) Ralph Lee Hopkins with aerial support by LightHawk
Los Cardones, proposed open-pit gold mine site, Sierra de la Laguna, Baja California, Mexico. image: (c) Ralph Lee Hopkins with aerial support by LightHawk

Elena Moreno, one of many Todos Santos residents who have loudly voiced their concerns, joins us as we fly over the proposed mines. The exploration activity has clearly delineated the proposed open pit mine limits, and from 1,000 feet up the potential impact on groundwater quantity and quality seems clear.

With no surface water in sight to supply water for human consumption and agriculture, local communities must depend on groundwater. It’s no wonder concerns exist about toxic chemicals used in mining, which if not properly sequestered, can leech in to groundwater and soil causing dramatic consequences on human health. A recent protest march against the mine development drew over 9,000 people.

LightHawk Pilot Will Worthington and WiLDCOAST's Fay Crevoshay and Sofia Gomez, Baja Aerial Archive Project, Baja California, Mexico. image: (c) Ralph Lee Hopkins with aerial support by LightHawk
LightHawk Pilot Will Worthington and WiLDCOAST’s Fay Crevoshay and Sofia Gomez, Baja Aerial Archive Project, Baja California, Mexico. image: (c) Ralph Lee Hopkins with aerial support by LightHawk

We land in La Paz and say goodbye to Fay, Sofia and Elena. Once back in San Jose, Ralph and I reflect on a full day that put 3.6 hours on the tach. These ladies know very well what’s at stake in the areas we’ve seen today, and they seem further energized from the opportunity to enjoy the unique perspective of flight with us. Ralph made numerous documentary images and our flight helped better illustrate the important issues facing this beautiful, remote mountainous region of Baja. We can only hope that Fay, Sofia, Elena and others will be able to use these images to reach and motivate audiences who have the passion to guide the future development of this beautiful part of the planet . . . to conserve it that future generations may enjoy it as we have today.

Will Worthington is a LightHawk volunteer pilot and board member, registered civil engineer and certified flight instructor. He lives in Carefree, Arizona with his bride of 51 years and flies a Cessna 182 RG out of Phoenix Deer Valley Airport.

After spending a year and four days in the extreme cold and white of Antarctica, I came back to the world a changed person. My passion is to share stories of people doing extraordinary things and I've done that since 2008 as the chief storyteller for LightHawk. LightHawk is a unique non-profit that grants flights to conservation groups through a network of volunteer pilots. Nearly everyday LightHawk donates educational, scientific and photography flights covering the U.S., Mexico, Central America and parts of Canada. LightHawk volunteer pilots, aircraft and resources help to tip the balance toward sustainability for every major environmental issue within our targeted areas of focus. My favorite part of flying at 1,000 feet in a small aircraft is seeing how that perspective changes how people see their communities and empowers them to take positive action on behalf of conservation. Taking off is pretty cool too.
  • Jack Danylchuk

    I’ve been watching this struggle against the resumption of mining in the sierra foothills since the property in question belonged to the now defunct Echo Bay Mines. I’ve walked and cycled through the hard-scrabble ranch communities that surround the biosphere reserve, from El Rosario through Valle Perdido, and Santa Gertrudis to Todos Santos. Much of the ground water is not potable; it was poisoned by miners long ago. Despite that, opposition to renewed mining is by no means universal. Many living in the foothills see the mines as a source of jobs and money.

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