Former bush pilot cycling from Alaska to Washington, D.C. stops in Dillon to describe his observations on climate change
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Stopping briefly in Dillon on his bicycle trek from Alaska to Washington, D.C., Don Ross said Colorado is not the only place hit hard by the spread of tree-killing insects.
“One of the things I’ve noticed is the dying trees along the way. There are extensive areas of forest-kill, dying spruce and pines from Alaska all the way down through British Columbia,” he said, attributing the unprecedented scope of the infestations to a warming climate. Severe cold snaps that used to keep the bug populations in check by killing the larvae in the trees are not occurring any more, he said.
Ross, who calls himself a peace rider, decided to make the cycle journey as a way of bringing attention to global warming and the perils he said it poses for the future of the planet. He’s maintaining a blog during his journey and has met with reporters along the way to relate his story.
His ride comes at a time when polls show increasing skepticism about global warming and its causes, even as scientific evidence mounts by the day.
“He’s doing what he’s trying to do,” said Summit County resident Tim Bicknell, who encountered Ross on Highway 9, north of Silverthorne, earlier this week and invited him to spend the night. “He’s talking about it and he’s got us talking about it. I have a feeling I’m going to have to ride my bike to Alaska now,” Bicknell said.
As a resident of the Lower Blue, Bicknell said global warming impacts hit home when he drives over Ute Pass and sees the expanse of beetle-killed forest along the road. The effort Ross is making to reach out is especially important in the current climate of growing skepticism, he said.
“His message might be re-affirming for people who are wavering a bit,” he said.
‘We don’t have decades’
Ross said time is running out.
“We don’t have decades to get it right. If we don’t get it together, we’re not going to be able to pull it off for our children,” he said, advocating for a global target of 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Environmentalists around the world are rallying around that number as a goal to limit emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. “This ride is about bringing people together around a common goal of breaking our addiction to fossil fuels.”
Ross, 67, is a Vietnam-era Air Force vet and spent decades working in Alaska, first as a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and later as a bush pilot flying supplies into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“He’s not an an environmental extremist. He has a science background, and he’s seen as much of Alaska as any man alive,” said Colorado resident Eddie Kochman, a former top-level aquatic biologist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Kochman, who has known Ross since their college days at Colorado State University, is supporting the ride through Colorado by ferrying some of Ross’s heavier gear across mountain passes. After years of studying fish in Colorado’s rivers and streams, he’s equally concerned about global warming impacts.
He said the state is already starting to see reduced snowpack and streamflows, especially at higher elevations, in streams critical for populations of rare native cutthroat trout.
“The cumulative impact in the West is going to be less water,” Kochman said.
Ross said the years he spent in the Arctic wilderness fostered a connection to the natural world.
“I started to realize, as the planet goes, so go these special places,” he said. “I started to see there was a real urgency to this; to getting it right on climate change … It’s worth going to extremes to draw attention to this,” he said, adding that he drew inspiration from the Peace Pilgrim, a spiritual wanderer who walked more than 25,000 miles on a journey for peace during a span of 28 years.
Ross expressed a holistic vision of environmental and spiritual awareness as he sipped a raspberry soda near the Dillon Conoco.
“It’s part of our failure to see that we’re all connected with each other and with the world … that’s preventing us from ending this madness of wars and exploitation of natural resources,” he said.
In the late 1990s, Ross said he started noticing a change in caribou migration patterns that may be linked to climate change. Other impacts in Alaska include more intense storms, with a rate of coastal erosion that is leaving some villages literally on the brink. The brush line is moving farther north and permafrost is melting. There’s less sea ice and more open ocean, which in turn absorbs more heat.
“All these things are multiplying each other,” he said. “The alarm bells should be going off.”
More information and links at the Ride for the Planet blog.