AUSTIN, Texas – Captain and Chief Pilot Lee Finch flew choppers for the military in Vietnam and Bosnia, but as Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s chief pilot, he’s not looking for just a thrill ride anymore. Though some of his work involves chasing bad guys like poachers along the Gulf of Mexico, he says his most rewarding flight has been a wildlife survey in which a team counted bighorn sheep in the Sierra Diablo Mountains. On the survey, they counted more bighorn sheep than ever before, which in turn allowed for more hunts. At 600 feet, the group got to poke in and out of the mountains observing the animals. Finch has been a pilot for 36 years, and with TPWD for the last 10. He is an airline transport pilot and multi-engine flight instructor, as well as an instrument instructor in both airplanes and helicopters. Finch and a task force combined from several state agencies patrol Texas making sure our animals, land and water are not violated by environmental crimes. “We want to make it safe and pleasurable state for everyone in Texas enjoying the great outdoors,” said Finch. Last Wednesday Finch flew members of the Texas Environmental Crimes task force in a survey of three sites suspected of storing or dumping hazardous waste materials. Sgt. Game Warden Jonathan Gray from TPWD Environmental Special Investigations and Dan McReynolds, an investigator from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality are in charge of the investigation. “How covert do we need to be?” asked Finch as we neared the first house in question and we hooked a sharp left for McReynolds to get photographs. Law enforcement for TPWD is not a typical 40-hour workweek. The TPWD pilots, including two others besides Finch, are on call all the time. And like most law enforcement, those calls to duty are with short notice. Environmental crimes investigators such as Gray respond to calls from neighbors, disgruntled employees or concerned citizens about strange chemical smells or suspicious activity. “I love the investigative nature of the work, though I don’t want to play down being a uniformed game warden. That was the best seven years of my life,” said Gray. “But it’s different because there’s no quick satisfaction.” Gray explained that many of the environmental investigations can take one to two years to reach final disposition. Though this is a significant expenditure of man hours, it contributes to the same effort as that of the uniformed game warden—protecting wildlife and the habitat they thrive in. “The helicopter is just one of the assets that TPWD contributes to the task force resources,” he added. The helicopter is a Bell Jet Ranger, an army surplus model OH-58. The O and H stand for “observation helicopter,” as distinguished from utility or attack helicopters. TPWD law enforcement pilots fly the OH-58 over Texas searching for hazardous waste violations and other types of crimes such as poaching. There are probably more illegal dumping problems in Texas than the two small investigative units can deal with, said Gray. His unit contains only seven people and McReynold’s contains nine. This group of specially-trained investigators is responsible for the entire state. “We make a good team because of our different backgrounds,” said McReynolds, whose training is science-related and technical, while Gray and Finch are trained in law enforcement, and, of course, flight. As the copter glided over the oak-lined hills of Austin, the wardens discussed fishing and hunting and the accuracy of global positioning systems. At all three sites, drums of suspect waste were spotted and photographed. “It changes every day,” said Gray. “And in the scheme of things, I like to think I’m making an impact. Our goal is ultimately to protect our habitat for wildlife and for our quality of life.” Just as there are two ways to drive a car, said Finch, there are two ways to fly a helicopter—reckless or safe. The thrill for these men, it seems, comes from flying safe and keeping Texas clean.
– Texas Saltwater Fishing Guide