Why support SkyTruth? A Funder’s Perspective

I work at the WestWind Foundation, a family foundation based in Charlottesville, Virginia, that provides support to non-profits working to stop mountaintop removal coal mining. WestWind has supported SkyTruth since 2004. Before coming to WestWind, I knew little of the technical analysis performed by SkyTruth. But in the past year, I have learned something of the destruction being wrought everyday upon the southern Appalachian mountains. Blasting off the tops of mountains to extract coal contributes to groundwater contamination and health problems, disrupts the lives of local people living with constant detonation, fills in hundreds of miles of streams, and destroys the ecological heritage of one of the most biologically diverse regions of the country.

At first, I wondered how a picture from space could possibly capture all the destruction, devastation, pain, and injustice that is caused by this type of coal mining. When I had the opportunity to view SkyTruth’s maps and images, and to learn exactly what their modeling and analysis could show, I was amazed. David, John and their team have uncovered and mapped the extent of mountaintop removal mining in the southern Appalachians, something that has never before been undertaken by government or industry (let alone a small non-profit). I watched, amazed, as David showed how the devastation has advanced over a thirty-year period, devouring a majority of the land area within certain counties in southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

Although the data and the maps are impressive, they alone are not what make SkyTruth’s work successful and engaging. The partnership between SkyTruth and Appalachian Voices is a truly unique relationship between science and the grassroots, and between data analysis and story-telling. Appalachian Voices has built a revolutionary website that allows anyone in the country to input their zip code and trace their energy utility’s use of mountaintop removal coal. SkyTruth provides the technical data and maps that show which mountains have been destroyed; Appalachian Voices provides the human stories behind the devastation. Both strategies are necessary to end this kind of ecological and community destruction.

What continues to impress me about SkyTruth is that this kind of behind-the-scenes advocacy is not limited to southern Appalachian coal communities. SkyTruth works to illustrate the impacts of natural gas drilling in Wyoming; diamond mining in Canada; oil and tar sands in Canada, Australia, and Colorado; trawling in the Gulf of Mexico, and the list goes on. What lies at the heart of SkyTruth’s mission is a deep concern for the planet’s shared ecological commons, and the commitment to bringing images of their destruction to the public.

Another Gigantic Frozen Mudsicle in Colorado?!

Colorado environmentalists who flew up to the head of Garden Gulch in western Colorado on March 19 were hoping to take some aerial pictures of a frozen “waterfall” of spilled drilling fluid that had been investigated by state Department of Natural Resources staff in late February (see our previous posting on the spills that have plagued this area of intensive drilling for natural gas).

Photo by Pete Kolbenschlag / Mountain West Strategies and EcoFlight

Instead, they found something truly astonishing that hadn’t been reported: a 100′ tall tower of frozen mud, apparently caused by severe erosion of soil from dirt roads and pipelines that were being built near the rim on the Roan Plateau. Two backhoes and several trucks are plainly visible in these pictures, taken by Pete Kolbenschlag of Mountain West Strategies during a low-altitude flyover by our friend Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight.

What else is lurking out there? Let us know if anything strange pops up…

Drilling Fluid “Waterfall” in Colorado – Natural Gas Not So Clean

Been hearing a lot lately about how “clean” natural gas is as an energy source. Well… the Colorado Department of Natural Resources just learned about four spills of waste drilling fluids into Garden Gulch, a tributary of West Parachute Creek in western Colorado. There is intensive drilling for natural gas occurring throughout the area around the Roan Plateau. Critics of the Bureau of Land Management’s recently announced plan to allow drilling on top of the as-yet untouched Plateau — including Governor Ritter and Senator Salazar — are worried that this is exactly the kind of thing that will happen, polluting surface water and ground water.

One of these spills, totaling 1.2 million gallons, created a most unnatural wonder: a frozen “waterfall” composed mostly of spilled drilling fluids, according to the DNR. Check out the photos in our image gallery. When this thing thaws out it will run directly into the creek. Bad news for the trout, bad news for fishermen.

SkyTruth’s 2008 Board

Our fabulous SkyTruth Board lineup continues for 2008, with the election of Directors and Officers at our first Board meeting of the new year. This gives us the perfect opportunity to introduce a key part of the SkyTruth team to those of you who don’t know us yet.


David Festa continues as Chairman, bringing his world-class managerial, public policy and fundraising skills to SkyTruth. David currently is Associate Vice-President, West Coast and Program Director for the Oceans Program at Environmental Defense Fund. Under his leadership, his program has restructured its strategic plan, streamlined management, and increased its funding and impact. Prior to joining EDF, David served as a senior appointee in the Clinton Administration, working closely with the Secretary of Commerce on policy and strategic planning. His past experiences include work on a wide range of issues, including energy, clean air, fisheries, protected areas, and more. In addition to his SkyTruth and EDF hats, David is a visiting scholar at Oregon State University.


Dr. Elliott Norse, President of Marine Conservation Biology Institute, combines scientific expertise as a marine and forest ecologist with his extensive experience in policy and organizational development. Elliott’s many accomplishments over his 35 year career include pioneering the concept of biological diversity while at President Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, and penning several books, including Conserving Biological Diversity in our National Forests for The Wilderness Society. In 1996 he founded MCBI to promote the science of marine conservation biology and encourage scientists to become engaged in the conservation of marine ecosystems. MCBI now has offices in four locations across the country and has played a central role in bringing the impacts of bottom trawling to the fore, as well as in establishing the largest marine protected area in U.S. waters.


Dr. David Shearer, is Chief Scientist with California Environmental Associates and specializes in next-generation transportation, energy and information technologies. He is an expert in policy instruments that catalyze market development for emerging technologies, exposure assessment of indoor/outdoor air pollutants, and climate change. David has worked with a broad range of private and public sector clients to manage environmental risk, quantify the life cycle impacts of human activities, develop revenue generation models for short- and long-term environmental strategies, and engage stakeholder groups in constructive dialogue. He also serves on the technical advisory boards of the Lindbergh Foundation and the Bay School of San Francisco.


Vikki Spruill currently is President and CEO of Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit conservation organization that promotes healthy ocean ecosystems through research, education and science-based advocacy. Previously, she was founder and President of SeaWeb, a non-profit organization that uses strategic communications techniques to advance ocean conservation. Priort to SeaWeb, she was Senior Vice President responsible for client management and new business development in the Washington DC office of Ruder Finn, one of the largest independently held public relations firms in the world.


John Amos, who many of you know through this blog, continues as President. Trained as a geologist, John has almost 20 years experience working with satellite imagery and other forms of remote sensing, and has led most of SkyTruth’s project work since its founding in 2002. Prior to founding SkyTruth he worked as a geologic image analyst and exploration consultant for Earth Satellite Corporation and Advanced Resources International. John has created a substantial network of conservation NGO partners over the years, who now benefit from the technical expertise and stunning images we produce to promote understanding of environmental issues.


Finally, last but not least (I hope!) is me, Amy Mathews Amos, elected as SkyTruth’s Secretary – Treasurer. In addition to being able to bend the ear of the President on a daily basis (wife’s prerogative), I bring 20 years experience working in environmental policy and science with the federal government, conservation organizations, and scientific societies. My current work as a consultant to NGOs and foundations includes policy analysis, program evaluation, and project coordination and management on a range of conservation issues. Beyond my consulting work and SkyTruth contributions, I also serve as President of the Board of Directors of the American Conservation Film Festival.


SkyTruth also benefits from several great Associates who help do the high-quality work SkyTruth is known for. We’ll introduce them in the near future. Check out our website (now undergoing a much-needed overhaul) for more info on people and projects.

Bottom Trawling: Sediment Plumes Visible From Space

I’m here in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). SkyTruth is part of a session looking at the impacts of commercial fishing on the oceans, specifically a technique called bottom-trawling. The trawlers drag heavy nets back and forth on the seafloor, flattening what’s in their path and, where the ocean floor is muddy, sending big billowing clouds of sediment into the water. The amazing thing is this phenomenon is actually visible from space: a trawler, with its nets deployed, leaves a long and persistent trail of sediment in it’s wake, not unlike a jet contrail:

We’ve built a public image gallery showing the sediment plumes generated by trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico, using both Google Earth and Landsat satellite images. We’ve also put together a virtual tour of this issue for Earth users. Today we took part in a press conference on this work; tomorrow we’ll give a talk at the symposium. You can download our presentation here (mostly pictures, not a lot of words — just the way we like it at SkyTruth).

But don’t stop there: send us your Google placemarks and other image examples showing the impacts of trawling, other fishing techniques, and other forms of human impact to our oceans. Email us (info@skytruth.org) or submit a comment on this blog posting. We’ll compile the submissions, credit the contributors, and post the results.