A frustrating challenge confronts anyone who tries to use virtual experience—words, pictures—to get people to care enough about a place to want to help save it. Few of us will work to preserve a place unless we love it already, and it’s tough to fall in love with a place without experiencing it. Even the very best writers and photographers and designers and editors have a hard time capturing a landscape vividly enough to inspire the passion that comes from being there.
And if we think we’ve got it rough here at the magazine, imagine what it must be like for the folks who use rather more limited mediums—email, text messages, actual letters—to communicate looming threats to habitats, and to urge people to take action. It’s such an abstraction. No matter how dire, a threat loses some impact when expressed in a gray, pleading paragraph accompanied by a teeny photo and stacked up in your inbox (assuming it gets through your spam filter first).
What to do? After all, we’re not exactly going to fly everyone out to New Mexico to spend some quality time with the Gila River, fall in love with it, and be transformed into gladiators fighting an ill-considered water-diversion scheme. Think of the carbon footprint!
But maybe we can close the gap. Audubon has been working for more than a year on a project we’re calling FlightMap, and which we’ve just launched. I urge you to check it out at flightmap.audubon.org. You’ll get to choose a bird avatar—a Bald Eagle, a Summer Tanager—and then you’ll soar as that bird through vivid three-dimensional landscapes, discovering some of the Southwest’s most threatened environments and learning about the conservation work being done there and how you can help. (This pilot version of FlightMap was created in collaboration with Audubon’s Western Rivers Action Network and focuses on the Colorado River Basin, but we’ll be rolling out new regions throughout this year and beyond.) You’ll also have the chance to add your own posts—bird sightings, stories of the river—and share a link to them, or to any spot in FlightMap, with your social media followers.