April 14, 2011
By Dan Namowitz
Ron Krohn doesn’t take long to explain how he became a point man in the successful campaign to include personal aviation in New Mexico’s law that limits landowner liability for recreational use of private property.
“I guess I raised my hand,” he said. “Then it took off from there.”
Good thing he did. New Mexico’s pilots rallied to the cause, and on April 6 an amendment adding three words—“operation of aircraft”— to recreational uses of private property for which owners are free from liability became law. Pilots groups celebrated the victory for its promise of opening numerous private airstrips in the mountains and high deserts of the Land of Enchantment to public enjoyment.
Only in America, said Krohn, 62, a financial adviser from Santa Fe who became a pilot at 50 and flies a restored Cessna 182 that he acquired just before he took his private pilot checkride.
The first thing Krohn will tell you about his experience working on House Bill 12 is that wherever he goes, he’s usually the least political person in the room. Politics is the last thing you have time for while working in financial services, and flying or going on skiing, golfing, diving, and camping adventures, all while actively participating in the local pilot community as a member of the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) and as vice president of the New Mexico Pilots Association (NMPA).
The political effort emerged about a year ago when the NMPA, under the new leadership of Joyce Woods as president and Krohn as vice president, formed a recreational aviation committee. The panel was to focus on opening up the state’s astonishingly beautiful backcountry to recreational aviation. Not just airstrips on private property; the NMPA is also engaged in what he describes as a “budding relationship” with the National Forest Service. A liability protection measure was part of the overall strategy. Preparing a database of airstrips and developing training programs for pilots was also planned.
After he raised his hand, Krohn started researching the liability issue’s history. He learned that all the states have so-called recreational use statutes—laws that protect property owners from liability for recreational use of their lands. But most of those statutes were based on a 1960s model.
“Recreational aviation wasn’t even a term in existence then—so how could they have included it?” Krohn said.
To eliminate landowner concerns about exposure to liability and encourage them to open their airstrips to privately owned, public-use status, language adding “operation of aircraft’ to the law became the goal. A similar legislative undertaking was under way this year in Kansas.
The process was new ground for Krohn.
“I am not very political,” he said in a phone interview from Santa Fe. “This was my very first exposure and foray into the legislature and politics, and it was an interesting and very educational experience.”
Emphasis on the word “interesting.”
One challenge was how to get the political players’ attention. Some 1,283 bills had been introduced for New Mexico’s 60-day legislative session. Only 284 of those would pass and be sent to the state’s new governor, Susana Martinez, for signing. She signed 186, he said. The others died various deaths in committees or floor voting.
After any bill’s introduction, it would begin its journey through committee hearings and votes, a floor vote in the chamber where it originated, then repeat the process in the other chamber. Krohn quickly learned, “You’ve got to stay on top of this thing.”
Working with an experienced sponsor, Rep. Jim Trujillo, (D-Santa Fe) was key to keeping it moving. So was support from Republican lawmaker Jim White (R-Bernalillo).
Krohn attended committee meetings—testifying four times—and tracked the legislative calendar daily for any changes.
He worked the building. Missing one meeting because of a last-minute schedule change was particularly irksome because he works only a ten minute walk from “the round house.” He hand-delivered letters of support from pilots, and from state aviation and tourism officials. NMPA member and RAF board member Rol Murrow, a former AOPA regional representative, also testified. NMPA and RAF member Dave Hamann pitched in, making contacts.
Krohn dropped off copies of an RAF informational video at the governor’s office and distributed copies to legislative committee members. In conversations and testimony he pressed the case that these were everyday constituents for whom he spoke—average folks who wanted to fly their 30-year-old Skyhawks and similar aircraft on missions of personal enchantment.
The message got through. Lawmakers seemed to grasp that it was a true cross-section of New Mexicans and other pilots working the issue, not some imagined clique or elitist group. Recreational flying was like “camping with your kids”—an idea politicians could get behind once they knew the facts, he said.
“This is a great step for the recreational pilots, the backcountry, and of course, the state of New Mexico” said Woods, NMPA’s president, in announcing the victory to her association’s members.
AOPA Southwest Regional Representative Shelly deZevallos congratulated New Mexico’s pilots and said that their effort “is a perfect example of how local pilots and organizations such as the RAF can come together and make a difference in the legislative process. As in Kansas, this legislation will open up backcountry strips for more flying and more enjoyment of all.”
RAF President John McKenna also was pleased. “What a great day for New Mexico and all of aviation,” he said in a news release.
“Ron stands as an example of what can happen when a dedicated volunteer decides something needs to be done—and does it," added Murrow.
Did the experience whet Krohn’s appetite for politics?
“Not particularly, but what it really illustrates is that someone like me, who knows nothing about the system ...” Krohn paused for a moment before resuming his train of thought.
“Only in America can a guy like me go to a legislature and say, ‘Gee, would you support an amendment like that?’—and a couple months later, it’s the law of the land,” he said.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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