Western lawmakers will try once again to gain legislative protection for backcountry airstrips. Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Representatives C.L. "Butch" Otter (R-Idaho) and AOPA member James Hansen (R-Utah) yesterday reintroduced AOPA-supported bills that would stop federal agencies from arbitrarily restricting or prohibiting general aviation access to backcountry airstrips on federal land.
"In the rugged West where suitable emergency landing areas are few and far between, these airstrips are important to safety," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "Backcountry airstrips could mean the difference between life and death for a pilot and passengers."
Backcountry airstrips are also necessary for search-and-rescue operations, firefighting, and forest management and research, Boyer added.
Boyer has testified before Congress on the importance of backcountry airstrips, and AOPA's Legislative Affairs office has worked with lawmakers in drafting the airstrip protection bill.
The Backcountry Landing Strip Access Act would severely limit the ability of federal land managers to close an aircraft landing strip. Closures would have to be approved by the FAA and the head of the appropriate state aviation department. The public would be given an opportunity to comment on a proposed closure.
Congress took the first steps toward protecting these airstrips last year when it accepted an amendment by Senator Crapo prohibiting federal funds from being used to close any airstrips on lands administered by the Department of the Interior. AOPA strongly supported the amendment.
The bill introduced in this session is a comprehensive, long-term solution to the problem.
Representative Otter told the House, "Last year, Idaho and the other western states were threatened by some of the largest firestorms in the history of this country, in which more than 7 million acres of forest lands burned.... The firefighters on the ground in these wilderness areas were supplied from airstrips on public land, [and] the aerial firefighting efforts depended on backcountry airstrips as safe havens in the case of emergency.
"Incredibly, for eight years before the fires, the federal government had sought to remove these airstrips. Amazingly, the departments of Agriculture and Interior had removed numerous airstrips on public lands without even consulting with pilots, land users, or state aviation authorities. This heavy-handed land management by unelected federal bureaucrats has placed innumerable lives in danger."
In the House, 24 representatives have signed on as co-sponsors, including pilot members Charles Bass (R-N.H.), Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), John Cooksey (R-La.), Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), and Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), as well as Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) and aviation subcommittee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.).
Senator Crapo sent a letter to Senate members requesting support of his bill. "This is commonsense legislation that allows those who use and benefit from the airstrips to be involved in the decision-making process," he wrote.
Eight senators are co-sponsoring the bill including Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and AOPA member James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.).
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based outside Washington, D.C., represents more than 370,000 pilots who own or fly three quarters of the nation's 206,000 general aviation aircraft. General aviation aircraft comprise 92 percent of the total U.S. civilian air fleet.