AOPA President Phil Boyer told Congress April 6 that backcountry airstrips must be preserved and that general aviation should not be restricted from federal lands.
"We have seen a startling increase in the attempts to restrict aviation access to public lands," Boyer testified before the House subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands. "Especially in Western states, pilots are coming under increasing pressure whenever they fly near national parks, forests, or other federally owned lands."
Boyer was speaking in favor H.R.3661, the "General Aviation Access Act." Introduced by Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah), the bill would turn back efforts by federal agencies to restrict or prohibit GA use of backcountry airstrips, particularly in the western United States.
Boyer said backcountry airstrips are necessary for search and rescue operations, firefighting, and for forest management and research. The U.S. Forest Service has its own aircraft fleet, and it uses backcountry airstrips extensively in its management efforts.
He told Congress that backcountry airstrips are also vitally important as emergency landing areas.
"Some 135,000 general aviation aircraft, the vast majority, have only one engine. If that engine fails, an immediate landing is required," Boyer said. "In mountainous terrain, a pilot has few choices for an emergency landing. An airstrip could be the difference between life and death."
To illustrate the point, Boyer played a videotape of an emergency landing at the Thomas Creek airstrip in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. A single-engine Cessna 206 carrying tourists over the extraordinarily rugged area was forced down with an engine problem. The pilot made a safe landing on the airstrip with no injuries to the passengers and little damage to the aircraft.
Much of the pressure against aviation comes from activists concerned about noise. But Boyer told Congress that general aviation aircraft do not detract from visitors' "natural experience."
"Most general aviation pilots fly near these federal lands because they too share an appreciation for outdoor recreation," said Boyer. "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 voluntarily fly at least 2,000 feet above the ground."
A Forest Service study ("Potential Impacts of Aircraft Overflights of National Forest Service System Wilderness") said, "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."
Boyer told Congress, "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."
AOPA said that to keep backcountry strips safe, they must be regularly maintained. "If the Forest Service is unable to properly maintain these airstrips due to budgetary constraints, use of airport maintenance funds from the aviation trust fund would make sense. AOPA will work with Congress, the FAA, and land management agencies to facilitate the use of these funds for backcountry airstrip maintenance."
The General Aviation 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.
The Interior and Agriculture departments couldn't force an airstrip to close by neglecting it, either. The bill requires that aircraft landing strips be maintained "in a manner that is consistent with the resource values of the adjacent areas."
"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," Boyer concluded. "It would replace the patchwork of ad hoc policies with a reasonable and balanced approach that will be a satisfactory solution for everyone, whether in the air or on the ground."
AOPA members are urged to contact their elected member of the House of Representatives and ask them to support the General Aviation Access Bill. Members of Congress can be contacted through the Capitol switchboard at 202/225-3121.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based outside Washington, D.C., represents more than 355,000 pilots who own or fly three quarters of the nation's 204,700 general aviation aircraft. General aviation aircraft comprise 96 percent of the total U.S. civilian air fleet.
April 7, 2000