Getting a Bird’s-Eye View of the Delaware River with Lighthawk
By Rita Yelda, Outreach & Communications Manager for the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed
The Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed (CDRW) staff works to unite organizations and move policy forward that benefits the Delaware River Basin. To accomplish this, we’re often in meetings, on the phone, or sitting behind a computer screen. It’s a rare day when we’re able to venture out into the watershed, which is why when Lighthawk offered to take our staff up in a plane over the Delaware River – we “flew” at the opportunity! Lighthawk is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1979 with one man and a borrowed plane, and now they utilize over 200 volunteer pilots across the U.S. who provide conservation organizations, scientists, and other environmental experts the powerful perspective of flight.
There’s a myriad of reasons to take to the sky. For starters, aerial views allow for the assessment the health of streams and forests, such as the annual “check-up” Delaware’s forests get at the end of spring to catch any potential issues such as tree diseases or insect pests early on. Land conservancies use flights to survey areas that can be added to preserves or parks to increase open space for the public and wildlife to enjoy. For example, the Appalachian Mountain Club used an aerial assessment to identify potential land conservation opportunities on a section of the Schuylkill River Trail in Montgomery and Berks Counties in Pennsylvania earlier this year. For advocacy organizations, getting a legislator up into the sky for a bigger picture of what’s at stake can help them to decide on a pressing environmental policy issue. Recently, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy took to the sky to, in part, to advocate for the renewal of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which allows Congress to appropriate funds so that federal agencies and local governments can buy and conserve land from willing sellers.
LightHawk flights clearly illustrate conservation opportunities and provide invaluable information to share with the public about some of our environment’s most critical landscapes, including the Delaware River Basin, which covers New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. CDRW staff met Bob, one of Lighthawk’s volunteer pilots, upon arriving at the Trenton-Robbinsville airport for our flight. Bob had an obvious passion for the environment and a good heart, telling us that he also sometimes flies for Angel Flight, which helps individuals get the medical treatment that they need.
During the flight, we straddled the line between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, watching the Delaware change before our eyes. The wide, tidal river we know in Trenton became narrow and calm as we headed north to the Upper Delaware. The Delaware River commanded attention as it cut through vast urban landscapes, and then, at other times, the river was almost invisible - just barely peeking out of the lush trees and foliage. The Delaware curved left and right, sometimes with tributaries stemming off, such as the Musconetcong River in northern New Jersey. I’ve read about the improvements being made to the Musconetcong thanks to projects like dam removals, but being able to see the healthy, rapidly flowing river from above was a much different experience.
One of the sites CDRW’s staff was most excited about seeing on our trip was the Delaware Water Gap, because even from the ground its beauty is overwhelming. Flying over the Delaware Water Gap gave us a once in a lifetime view that made our jaws drop. Would you believe that there are lakes on the tops of mountains in the Delaware Water Gap? During the flight, it was often difficult to tell where New Jersey ended and where Pennsylvania began, which gave me an overwhelming appreciation of how the river connects us all as one, united watershed. Flying above the Delaware River only deepened CDRW’s commitment to protecting the watershed for generations to come and affirmed the importance of pursuing our policy priorities to do so.
What's more is that Lighthawk is available to take members of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative into the sky for a unique view of the watershed. In 2017, Lighthawk completed 14 missions across the eight Delaware River Watershed Initiative clusters, inspiring and empowering folks to take action throughout their watershed. CDRW was offered a view of the Delaware River that typically only the birds get to see, and this memorable experience is something we’ll forever be grateful for as we continue to work to safeguard the watershed.