In a Race Against Time, Michael Stewartt Takes Wing on An Aerial Mission to Save America's Vanishing Forests

updated 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Soaring above Olympic National Forest in northwest Washington, Michael Stewartt dips the wings of his six-seater plane and swoops down to offer his passengers a better view. The vista below, however, is far from inspiring: The entire side of one mountain has been laid bare by loggers, leaving only occasional tree stumps, some as wide as 10 feet, where a thick growth of 500-year-old Douglas firs once stood. "Welcome to our national forest," yells Stewartt over the roar of the prop engine. 'You know, Smokey Bear and all that." Shaking his head in disgust, he makes a pass over another patch of devastation where, from 300 feet in the air, the felled trees look like spilled match sticks.

The flight is a typical one for Stewartt, 40, who for 15 years has used his skills as a pilot to further environmentalist causes. In 1979 he founded Lighthawk, a small, nonprofit conservation group based in Santa Fe, N. Mex. Today Lighthawk's 61 volunteer pilots around the country fly reporters, politicians and businessmen to environmental trouble spots and give them a bird's-eye view of the damage man has wrought. The idea is to educate and activate.

Many of those missions have been successful. Three years ago Lighthawk helped shut down a copper-smelling plant in Douglas, Ariz., after state officials saw its 900-foot-high smokestacks spewing tons of toxic sulfur dioxide into the air. Legislators are also heeding Stewartt's dire warnings. If passed by Congress, the Ancient Forest Act would limit the cutting of old-growth forests. "I've logged thousands of miles with Lighthawk," says Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth, who sponsored a similar bill protecting the Tongass rain forest in Alaska. "Michael has helped me get to places where we've stopped a lot of clear-cutting. We couldn't have done it without him."

Stewartt insists that the battle over clear-cutting has just begun. With only 4 percent of the nation's virgin forests still standing, conservationists and loggers are at odds over how to preserve the forests and still keep the sawmills running. Stewartt says he's sensitive to the loggers' plight but argues that old-growth trees should only be cut down for special purposes—like making musical instruments from the tight, ringed wood of spruce trees. "Either we protect a few forests now and get some support for people who have been in these jobs a long time, or we wait until all these forests are gone," he says. "Either way you slice it, they're still going to be out of work."

Stewartt hasn't always been a man of such strong convictions. Born in Tucson to a dentist and a housewife, he enrolled at Stanford but dropped out soon after. For the next two years, he traversed the country, living out of a backpack and occasionally panhandling to survive. In 1968 he attended college in Australia, only to drop out again and work odd jobs. When he returned to Tucson the following year, Stewartt decided to become a pilot, and got his license a year and a half later.

For a time Stewartt worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet; in 1975 he combined his interest in flying with his growing concern about the environment. He became particularly alarmed when he learned about plans to build a coal-powered energy plant on the Arizona-Utah border, less than 30 miles from Grand Canyon National Park. When conservation groups organized a press conference in Page, Ariz., Stewartt and five pilot buddies he had recruited loaded their planes with reporters. Afterward newspaper stories raised questions about the plant's controversial location, and the proposal was scrapped. The idea for Lighthawk was born.

But Stewartt couldn't get his fledgling idea off the ground. He approached conservation groups for funding, but their response was less than enthusiastic. "I couldn't convey my vision with enough power to the people who could back it," he recalls. Stewartt abandoned the idea until four years later, when a Wyoming rancher contributed $50,000 toward Lighthawk's first plane.

The organization, whose $500,000 annual budget comes from individual contributions and grants, works in tandem with such conservation groups as the Wilderness Society on projects ranging from preserving fragile desert lands to teaching schoolchildren about clear-cutting. Lighthawk (P.O. Box 8163, Santa Fe. N.Mex. 87504) has also taken its campaign to Central America. Last June, after Stewartt flew several government ministers from Belize on a tour of that country's southern rain forests, the Belize government set aside 100,000 acres as a nature preserve.

These days Stewartt has his sights set on changing American attitudes toward the national forests. "When people look at maps with the forests designated on them, they think, 'Thank goodness there's protected land out there,' " he says. "They don't realize these lands are being hammered down to nothing." While the group's seven paid staffers and a handful of volunteers man the Santa Fe headquarters. Stewartt spends his lime juggling the schedules of his pilots, a diverse band of commercial fliers and even one ex-logger.

When he's not aloft, Stewartt lives frugally in a small, spartan house in Seattle. He drives a 10-year-old Chrysler New Yorker, and his devotion to Lighthawk makes finding time for romance almost impossible. But for Stewartt, it's a compromise he is willing to make. "I put every ounce of my energy into this, and there are trade-offs to doing that." he says. "But I've already got my love for the planet. I hope to hang on long enough to see the results. That's what keeps me going."

—Andrew Abrahams, Stanley Young in Seattle

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