The departments of Interior and Agriculture have agreed to work with Congress to develop a comprehensive approach to managing backcountry airstrips.
Following several years of AOPA efforts to obtain a national policy governing airstrips on federal land, the Bush administration has now committed to a management approach that will include an open and public process, making it harder for the agencies to close backcountry airstrips.
The agreement came in letters to Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who has sponsored legislation to protect backcountry airstrips.
"For the first time these federal agencies have recognized the critical safety and access roles backcountry airstrips play," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "And even more importantly, the federal land managers have finally committed to Congress that they will consult with the public and the states before they make any changes to the use of backcountry airstrips."
(The Department of Interior has authority over airstrips in national parks, monuments, and recreation areas, and airstrips on Bureau of Land Management lands. The Department of Agriculture manages airstrips in national forests.)
The establishment of a national policy governing backcountry airstrips on federal land is a long-sought goal of AOPA. The Clinton administration repeatedly told Congress that there was no need for such a policy. Now the Bush administration has committed itself to a process that will include periods of public notice, comment, and participation by the states.
To highlight the importance of the agreement, senators Crapo and Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) spoke July 12 on the Senate floor about the necessity of this policy. And they warned federal land managers that closing any airstrips without following the policy would be a perilous course. Senator Crapo then read the letters from the departments of Agriculture and Interior into the record.
Secretary of Interior Gale Norton wrote, "Our nation's backcountry airstrips are important to many activities that take place on our public lands.... It is important to ensure that legitimate uses of backcountry airstrips are protected. It is also a priority for this Department that any proposal to alter use of federal lands must go through open and public process that includes close consultation with local communities."
Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman wrote, "We agree that it is appropriate to maintain airstrips that provide critical air access to rural, backcountry or wilderness areas; that contribute to pilot safety; or that support aerial firefighting efforts."
While the agreement is an important first step, Sen. Crapo stated that he hopes that Congress ultimately will pass legislation that will permanently bind the agencies to follow the agreement.
"There is a concern about this because these airstrips provide not only access to the backcountry for recreational use, but they are also critical [to]...our public lands and fighting forest fires," said Sen. Crapo.
Alaska Sen. Murkowski commented on pilot safety, adding, "When that engine quits, you have a problem.... I know many of our friends from the East Coast and populated areas cannot quite appreciate why we need [backcountry airstrips], but we vitally need them."
On April 3, 2001, Sen. Crapo and Representatives Butch Otter (R-Idaho) and AOPA member James Hansen (R-Utah) reintroduced the Backcountry Landing Strip Access Act (S.681/H.R.1363). Both AOPA-backed bills block efforts by federal agencies to restrict or arbitrarily prohibit general aviation's use of backcountry airstrips by requiring approval from state aviation officials before closing landing sites on federal land.
Last year Sen. Crapo, with the help of Senators Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), successfully attached a provision to the Interior Appropriations Conference Report for fiscal year 2001 that prohibited federal funds from being used to close any airstrips on lands administered by the Department of the Interior. Facing the possibility that an AOPA-supported prohibition against the closure of backcountry airstrips in the Interior Appropriations bill would be extended by Congress until October 2002, the agencies instead reached this agreement with sponsors of the Backcountry Landing Strip Access Act.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based outside Washington, D.C., is the world's largest civil aviation organization. More than 58 percent of the nation's pilots are AOPA members.