Local paraglider sees the environment from a different perspective than most people
“It’s displacing the idea that flight is all about fossil fuel. Because, really, our ability to fly is based on nature’s energy—the sun heating the land, causing air to flow … vertically in the form of thermals,” said Jon Stallman, a local paraglider and paragliding instructor, of the eco-friendly sport of paragliding. “I think some people have the misconception that we’re just daredevils!”
When he is gliding through the air, suspended in a harness beneath his paraglider’s curved fabric “wing,” Stallman is “immersed in everything to do with nature”—from reading the subtleties of the wind on tree leaves and branches below him, to studying the clouds, which “show the vertical movement of air.
“It’s a partnership” between him and nature, he said of the sport.
Stallman—who is also an engineering analyst and principal at local renewable-energy-analysis/design firm Energy X-Change—has a unique vantage point from which to observe and discuss the natural world as he cruises through the air (usually 4,000 to 5,000 feet above the ground, sometimes as high as 12,000 feet)—both the beauty of it and instances of destruction done to it.
In a recent interview with Stallman, the talk immediately went to birds, and the joy derived from being in a position to fly through the air in close proximity to them, “playing” with them and observing their habits, as well as taking cues from them about flying conditions on any particular day.
For instance, turkey vultures—those ubiquitous birds seen soaring in the air over the canyon in Upper Bidwell Park through which Big Chico Creek flows—“always know when the air is going to ‘shut down,’” he noted, adding that last year he “flew with over 35 vultures in Bidwell Park—all in the same thermal!”
Bald eagles, Stallman offered, “have a daily commute: At the tail end of January through March, they will fly back and forth between Table Mountain and the [valley’s] rice fields during the daytime, presumably to hunt [in the fields].”
Sometimes things get a little more raucous.
As Stallman wrote in an article coming out in December in the U.S. Hang Gliding & Paragliding Association’s magazine, Hang Gliding & Paragliding, about a flight he took over the Owens Valley (east of the San Joaquin Valley): “I noticed two birds in my thermal suddenly get completely tossed upside down, tumbling, and flapping. Oh boy—hold on, it’s coming: Whack! My wing wadded up, whipped around 180 degrees, and snapped back open with a huge head-whipping jolt.”
Other times, Stallman’s concern is not so much with what is happening in the air as what is happening far down below.
He has noticed, for instance, “a degree of trail erosion” in Upper Bidwell Park, where he paraglides regularly. “There’s been a lot of really good progress on trail containment, and more of it needs to be done to protect the thin soils,” Stallman said. “I can see that from the air. I can see the array of trails. I can see the vehicles from rowdy folks at Bear Hole, and I can see their donut tracks out in the field adjacent to Bear Hole.”
That’s not all Stallman can see from the air when it comes to flying over the nearby foothills, and over forested areas not visible by drivers on roads and highways.
“I can see the ‘forest projects’ that are going on—a lot of forest and ‘agricultural’ projects—and it’s questionable as to how environmentally sound those projects really are,” he said, speaking in measured fashion, declining to be too specific.
“When you get in the air, you can read so much more about human impact.”
Stallman referred to the Oct. 4 episode of ABC News’ Nightline program, in particular a segment titled “Turf War: Gliders vs. Gravel Miners,” as a case in point. Filmed at the paragliding and hang-gliding mecca in Utah’s Traverse Mountains called Point of the Mountain, the segment is focused on the large-scale, increasingly expanding bulldozing of the beautiful mountainous area by a mining company called Geneva Rock.
“This is a common event we address,” Stallman said, referring to the destruction of unspoiled open spaces (perfect for paragliding due in large part to the way the wind plays off of the shape of the terrain) by such entities as gravel-mining companies and developers.
“Every year, at least one [paragliding] site goes away because of development,” he said. In the case of Point of the Mountain—where Stallman has spent considerable time paragliding—residents, environmentalists and recreationists recently formed a group, Save Steep Mountain, in an effort to preserve what is left of the mountainous area. The Steep Mountain/Point of the Mountain area of the Traverse Mountains is being eyed as part of the planned “phase 2” of Geneva Rock’s gravel-excavation activity.
Dealing with ongoing challenges to both the protection of and access to open space—not only for those partaking in paragliding, but for hikers, bikers, campers and so on—is “an extremely common thing,” in Stallman’s experience. “All too often, people pit those two things—protection and access—against each other,” he offered. “There is a fine balance between protecting and accessing, and they need to work together, not against each other.
“In the case of Point of the Mountain, it’s the access [by hikers, paragliders, etc.] that’s going to protect it.”
There is such a thing as overprotection, however, said Stallman, which can virtually eliminate access to certain wild spaces. “If you overprotect, and reduce access, we’ll have to gain our appreciation of nature by watching the Discovery Channel.
“And, because I have access to Bidwell Park, I’ll do anything to protect it and keep it in good condition.”