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AOPA testimony on backcountry airstripsAOPA testimony on backcountry airstrips

Statement of Phil Boyer
AOPA Legislative Action

before the

Committee on Resources
Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health
U.S. House of Representatives
The Honorable Helen Chenoweth, Chairman


U.S. Forest Service Management of Backcountry Airstrips

September 17, 1998

Madame Chairman, my name is Phil Boyer, and I am president of AOPA Legislative Action.

AOPA Legislative Action enjoys the financial support of 340,000 dues-paying members. Together with our affiliated organization, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, we promote the interests of those who contribute to our economy by taking advantage of general aviation aircraft to fulfill their business and personal transportation needs. More than half of all pilots in the United States are members of AOPA, making it the world’s largest pilot organization.

Madame Chairman, I am very pleased to be here today to discuss the management of airstrips by the U.S. Forest Service on a national basis.

Throughout the country, especially in western states, those who use aircraft for personal or business transportation are coming under increasing pressure whenever they fly in, near, or over national parks, forests, or other federally owned lands. The source of pressure is usually groups who want to place new restrictions on use of or access to parks or wilderness areas. These groups claim that aircraft landing and taking off in these areas, or even flying overhead, have an adverse effect on the recreational experience of visitors on the ground due to aircraft noise.

These groups often use the management plans and environmental impact statements (EISs) for these lands to press for restrictions on aircraft use in or near these areas. In several cases, they have succeeded in placing restrictive language in these statements. AOPA is also involved in the drafting of these policies and statements, and our organization frequently submits comments to represent the interests of general aviation.

Recently, we have observed a startling increase in restrictions or attempts to restrict aviation access to federally managed lands. Proposed restrictions are rolling in left and right, some having been tentatively adopted by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and other land management agencies.

The draft Operational Management Plan and EIS for the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho is one such case. The draft would severely restrict aviation operations in the area, including closing landing strips located within the Wilderness.

In addition to Frank Church, we have confronted proposals to restrict or ban aviation activity at Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area in Oregon, Desolation Wilderness Area in California, Glacier National Park in Montana, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and Sedona National Forest area in California, to name a few. We also face the possible closure of Gravelly Valley Airport, a general aviation facility located in Forest Service lands in California, and we are working to reopen Rogersburg Airstrip in Washington state after it was closed by the Bureau of Land Management. Also, the San Rafael Swell National Heritage and Conservation Act introduced by Rep. Chris Cannon (H.R.3625) with a Senate companion by Sen. Robert Bennett (S.2385) would ban aircraft overflights along with other mechanized travel in that portion of the San Rafael heritage and conservation area in Utah reserved for the management of the Desert Bighorn Sheep. In addition, we are dealing with access issues surrounding Mt. McKinley Airport in Alaska, a state that relies extensively on general aviation for basic transportation. Many Alaskans cannot imagine life without general aviation and the wilderness airports and airstrips on which it depends.

Though every case is different, proposals to restrict aviation access to federally managed lands are generally inappropriate.

General aviation pilots do not seek to hinder the experience of anyone taking advantage of recreational opportunities in these parks, forests, or wilderness areas. Most GA pilots fly over, or land in, these areas because they share an appreciation for outdoor recreation. Cooperation between the land management agencies has always been a cornerstone of aviation’s efforts to preserve the park and wilderness experience for ground visitors. As part of our effort to preserve the experience of ground visitors and respect the natural quiet that visitors and wildlife enjoy, general aviation pilots currently observe a voluntary overflight minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above ground level.

General aviation contributes positively to the recreational experience. Aircraft overflights do not leave litter behind, clog roads, or physically damage wilderness areas. Compared to other sources of noise and disturbance that visitors may experience in national parks, forests and wilderness areas, aviation brings very little noise. Aviation provides access to those physically unable to enjoy this often rough terrain from the ground. Aviation serves an essential purpose in search and rescue, firefighting, and forest and ecological management and research. In fact, the U.S. Forest Service has its own fleet of aircraft and it uses these backcountry airstrips extensively in its management efforts.

Like forests and other wilderness areas, airspace is a treasured national resource, and like forests and wilderness, airspace and the landing facilities necessary to take advantage of it are shrinking due to pressure from other interests.

As with any access restrictions, limits on access by aircraft should be justified by hard data, such as a record of frequent complaints by wilderness users, not simply the perceptions of a few activists. Yet rarely have any real complaints or evidence of real harm been cited to justify restrictions on aircraft.

A study by the Forest Service titled “Potential Impacts of Aircraft Overflights of National Forest Service System Wilderness,” which was mandated by the National Parks Overflights Act of 1987 (P.L. 100-91), found little impact of aircraft overflights on visitors’ experience. The study said that “aircraft noise intrusions did not appreciably impair surveyed wilderness users’ overall enjoyment of their visits to wilderness nor reduce their reported likelihood of repeat visits.” Further, a visitors’ survey at Hell’s Canyon revealed that 72 percent of respondents felt that airplanes overhead had little or no effect on the quality of their experience.

Congressional intent has always encouraged public access to this wilderness area, including access by aircraft. In fact, Congress has mandated or encouraged access to most natural resources set aside for preservation and public enjoyment. Any restrictions on access must be consistent with the will of Congress.

Even if adequate justification for flight restrictions exist and are consistent with congressional intent, the Federal Aviation Administration is by law the sole authority on aviation and airspace. Any restrictions or alterations of aircraft procedures or airspace use must not be considered without the close cooperation of the FAA.

Without a national airspace policy and a national agency to make and enforce it, airspace would be reduced to a patchwork of confusing and inconsistent regulations, and aviation safety would be severely compromised.

For example, a minimum altitude restriction—a requirement that aircraft fly a certain level above ground level—has important safety implications. The majority of general aviation aircraft fly under visual flight rules (VFR). Weather at higher altitudes often reduces visibility, creating an unsafe condition for VFR flight. General aviation aircraft, which typically have a much shorter range and lower ceiling than the jets most people are familiar with, often have little choice but to follow air routes over a park or wilderness.

Backcountry airstrips serve an essential safety role for transient aircraft as emergency landing areas. Most general aviation aircraft have only one engine. Of the 195,000 active civil aircraft in the United States, 135,000 (70 percent) are single-engine piston aircraft. If the engine fails, an immediate landing is required, which is why gliding to a safe landing is a part of basic general aviation pilot training. In flat populated areas, there are a multitude of airports, airstrips, and even fields that offer ample emergency landing opportunities. In mountainous terrain, however, a pilot of a single-engine aircraft experiencing engine trouble has few choices for an emergency landing. An airstrip could be the difference between life and death for a pilot and passengers.

These are only a few of the many complex technical considerations that must be taken into account when designing airspace. Only a technical agency like the FAA is qualified to accomplish it safely.

Keeping airstrips safe and usable requires maintenance of the facilities. The maintenance needed is not expensive, but it must be performed on a regular basis. If the Forest Service or other agency is unable to properly maintain these airstrips due to budgetary constraints, considering the use of the airport maintenance funds available from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund would make sense. AOPA would be happy to work with the Forest Service and other land management agencies, the FAA, and Congress to facilitate the use of Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds for maintaining backcountry airstrips.

We believe proposals to restrict aviation access to federally managed lands will increase and disputes will intensify. However, these disputes can be resolved cooperatively and to the satisfaction of all interests.

Last year, the secretaries of Transportation and Interior appointed a National Park Overflights Working Group (NPOWG) composed of representatives of the aviation industry, tour industry, environmental groups, and Native Americans. This process was initiated following disputes over air tours at several national parks. The group included a representative of AOPA.

The members of the NPOWG were a truly balanced group that brought all the interests to the table in a “negotiated rulemaking” process. They successfully forged a compromise that will allow future disputes over aviation access to national parks to be resolved to the satisfaction of aviators, tour operators, Native Americans, and tourists who enjoy national parks from the air and the ground. This compromise is contained in the FAA reauthorization bill the House passed this year (H.R.4057). I want to stop and thank Congressman Duncan, a member of this Committee and chairman of the aviation subcommittee of the Public Works & Transportation Committee, for his excellent work on that fine legislation and for wisely including the National Parks agreement in the bill. He is an excellent resource for aviation information and leadership, and I’m very glad he is a member of this Committee.

Like the National Parks situation, aviation access to other federally managed lands requires a national policy. Before this issue gets out of hand, we believe the Forest Service, and other federal agencies with land management responsibilities, should adopt a nationwide policy for dealing with aviation issues that relate to land management and require regional managers to follow this policy.

We believe that at minimum, such a policy should have the following four elements:

  1. The need for new local policies affecting aviation access to managed land, whether relating to airspace, altitude, flight time, use of landing facilities, or maintenance or closure of landing facilities, must be adequately researched and documented in an empirical study that takes into account the interests of both management of the land and aviation interests and safety.
  2. Such policies must be written with the coordination and cooperation of the Federal Aviation Administration, and must acknowledge that the FAA remains sole authority over aviation and airspace.
  3. Such policies must also be written with the coordination and cooperation of the aviation department of the state(s) in which the land is located.
  4. Local and national aviation groups and the public should be consulted and have the right to comment on the proposed policy.

The subcommittee may even want to consider a negotiation process similar to the National Park Overflights Working Group.

We believe this is a reasonable approach to this problem that would protect the interests of pilots, tour operators, air tourists, environmentalists, native Americans, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, and future generations. It would replace the current patchwork, knee-jerk, ad hoc policies and prevent the proliferation of more. A reasonable and balanced approach to this important issue can lead to a satisfactory solution for everyone, whether in the air or on the ground.

Madame Chairman, this concludes our comments. Thank you again for the opportunity to present our views. I will be happy to respond to any questions.

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