The Eco Warriors
Credit: Getty Images

Roughly 700 feet above the Hudson River, 60-some miles north of New York City, Harrison Ford dips his Bell 407 helicopter toward the river's eastern bank and frowns. You know the frown, of course: It's the frown on Han Solo's face when he's ensnared in the Death Star's tractor beam, or of Jack Ryan untangling some terrorist plot. Twenty-five feet tall on the silver screen, that frown – with its crooked, clenched jaw – has become iconic. Up in Ford's helicopter, however, it merely means that something is wrong. "There's a brown pipe coming out from that quarry," Ford says to his passengers. "Comes out at the woods there. See it?"

Seated beside Ford is Basil Seggos, a 27-year-old legal investigator for Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group that tracks and prosecutes Hudson River polluters. Seggos cranes his neck for a better view. "Whoa," he says. "Look at this." Down below, a rust-colored pipe leading out from a gravel quarry is spewing a foamy jet of pump water into the wetlands that line the river. "We're flying directly over a pipeline that this quarry is using to pump out sediment," he explains to the three of us in the helicopter's rear: Alex Matthiessen, Riverkeeper's executive director; photographer Timothy White, an old pal of Ford's; and me. "Oh, man," says Seggos, his voice almost cracking. "That's gotta be illegal."

In April, after years of hunting down polluters with kayaks, powerboats, hiking boots, and subpoenas, Riverkeeper's investigators received an offer that they leapt at: A New York-based pilot was willing to take them up on aerial surveillance runs, and, to boot, he had a photographer friend willing to document the abuses. That this pilot, a longtime Riverkeeper patron, happened to be the biggest-grossing star in cinema history was a glitzy bonus, but it was the prospect of using Harrison Ford's helicopter that truly thrilled Seggos and company.

"See all that shit coming out of it?" says Ford, his eyes on the pipeline. "Tim, I'm going to give it to you on the right here." White lifts his camera up to the window glass, aims, and focuses. "Go ahead, Tim," says Ford. "Fire away." Click. Within each frame, gallon after gallon of discharge spills into the marsh and seeps toward the Hudson in a curved plume, marking its entrance into the river's wide stream. Click. Click. Click-click-click. Up front, Seggos is giddy; he and Matthiessen came with a list of surveillance targets – sprawling riverside junkyards, leaky Superfund sites, illegally filled-in-wet-lands – but this discovery is a surprise. "We never would have seen that without a flyover," Seggos says to Ford. The actor doesn't respond, which is not unusual for him, but the frown seems to soften.

This isn't the first time Harrison Ford has put his helicopter to good use. Two years ago, he piloted a rescue team to the top of Wyoming's Table Mountain, near the home in Jackson where he lives part time, to help a 20-year-old hiker who was too sick and dehydrated to descend. Ford ferried her to a local hospital, where she recovered. Last year, he located and rescued a Boy Scout who'd been missing for a night in Yellowstone National Park.

Not that Harrison Ford wants you to call him a hero. He doesn't want you to think, "Gee, what a guy, saving Boy Scouts and damsels, whapping polluters with a real-life bullwhip." And he certainly doesn't want you to say that the planet would be worse off if it weren't for him. In fact, Ford really doesn't want to talk about this extracurricular stuff at all. He'd almost prefer that questions be addressed to his helicopter, since it's really the helicopter doing the heavy lifting. That's why Ford has rarely taken the standard celebrity tack in do-gooding, that is, being a spokesman. "Emotion is the language of movies," he once said. "Not yammering on." It's a dictum he applies to the wider world as well.

As a 10-year board member of Conservation International, a nonprofit group that seeks to safeguard biodiversity trouble spots around the globe, Ford has traveled to endangered zones in Brazil, Venezuela, and other South American nations. "He's an engaged and immersed leader," says Peter Seligmann, Conservation International's chairman, "who's deeply involved in the substantive issues of the organization. Visibility is the most minor part of what he gives us. He's a strategic thinker, and as passionate an advocate as we have." In other words, Harrison Ford is a man of action, literally. "I am not," as Ford says, "a poster child."

Case in point: Riverkeeper. Ford had been sending checks to the New York-based organization for years when he encountered Riverkeeper's chief prosecuting attorney, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., at a fundraiser this spring. Although Ford spends a good deal of his time at his 800-plus-acre Wyoming ranch, he keeps his main residence close to the Hudson River, in New York City, where two of his children attend private school. An avid, even obsessive, pilot for the past six years, he stores some of his six aircraft – including a single-engine de Havilland Beaver biplane, a twin-engine Gulfstream IV jet, and his $2 million Bell helicopter – in a hangar in Teterboro, New Jersey, just across the river.

"I think I said to Bobby, 'If there's anything I can do to help . . .'" Ford recalls. "He said he might be looking for pilots to fly the Hudson watershed, and I said, 'Let me know when you're ready, and I'll do what I can.'" Kennedy says the surveillance flights were Ford's idea, not his, but we can probably chalk that disagreement up to dueling modesty. Either way, Riverkeeper gained its first aerial volunteer.

Back in Ford's helicopter, Matthiessen follows up. "We recognized that with a staff of 15 or 20, it would be impossible to crack down on all the polluters along the river. So we've embarked on a program to enlist average citizens, and" – with a nod toward Ford – "not-so-average citizens, to be our eyes and ears. The idea is to allow local people to do some of the work of protecting their river – to let them serve as mini-riverkeepers."

"So, something like a neighborhood watch for the environment?" I ask.

"Exactly," Seggos says. "By the program's first anniversary, we'd recorded 169 complaints, and the rate is skyrocketing. We accept help from anyone who wants to give it to us, from anonymous sources, at the low end of involvement, and, at the another end, a few full-time volunteers: fishermen, kayakers, people like that. Right now, though, Harrison is the only volunteer who can give us an aerial view."

"Red-tail right beneath us," Ford announces. All eyes focus on the hawk as it glides upstream, until a junkyard strewn with tires and rusted automotive husks appears on our left. White lifts his camera as Ford swings the helicopter toward their target.