Jackson airport told to create disaster fund for heli-tours

JACKSON — Town of Jackson officials are playing with Jackson Hole Airport purse strings to create a precautionary pot of money for potential wildfire and search-and-rescue costs in the event that a scenic helicopter flight crashes and burns.

The Town Council, which approves the airport budget annually in concert with Teton County commissioners, directed the airport to transfer $250,000 to the Teton County Sheriff’s Office specifically to support wildfire and emergency medical services and search-and-rescue operations.

Another $70,000 was reapportioned from the proposed budget “to enhance the board’s advocacy efforts to advance additional local control to further align with our local community vision.” In other words, the money could be used to lobby Congress so that the airport isn’t as bound to Federal Aviation Administration regulations deemed deleterious to Jackson Hole.

Airport Director Jim Elwood spoke remotely with councilors at their May 18 meeting and was amenable to the changes. The town did not add or subtract from the airport’s $74.9 million budget but rather asked its staff and board to reassign the money from other pots of their choosing.

“If that’s the desire of the council, and it’s agreeable within the existing airport funds,” Elwood said, “I think there’s opportunity there to put together a program.”

The airport board’s recent approval of the scenic helicopter tour business Wind River Air touched off the budgetary adjustments, which are unusual in the town and county’s dealings with the airport.

Owner and Hoback resident Tony Chambers’ bid to do business was hotly contested — including by the airport’s own board — but was eventually OK’d to comply with FAA regulations and not jeopardize tens of millions of dollars of federal grant money.

Legally, it’s not yet entirely clear if the town and county governments can siphon off part of the airport’s budget to create a precautionary disaster fund.

“I think that it would in fact be legal based on a careful reading of the Federal Register that spells out FAA regulations about how airport revenues can be spent,” Councilor Jim Stanford said at the meeting. “As long as it’s a modest and reasonable request, we shouldn’t have any problem with the FAA.”

The airport’s legal counsel, Loff Shaiman Jacobs Hyman and Feiger attorney Mike Morgan, has not vetted the idea, Elwood said in an interview.

“I think that it’ll be the decision of the town and county about how they want to approach that question,” the airport director said of the fund’s legality. “I presume the town and county are likely to be framing some kind of question to the FAA.”

Elwood pointed out that there are somewhat similar arrangements already in place.

“A prime example is the law enforcement contract that the airport has with the town to support law enforcement requirements that a town police officer be on the site any time there are commercial airlines activities in process,” he said. “As long as those products and services are well defined and values are established … airport funds are eligible and legal to use for those cases.”

At the same town meeting, councilors signed off on the airport’s contract with the Jackson Police Department, a $554,000 expense.

At least one federal aviation official doesn’t appear to see wildfire as a risk to be concerned about.

“The forest fire issue is a red-herring,” FAA regional aviation safety manager John Wood wrote to FAA colleagues in a February email. “Might as well forbid all airplanes from flying, since many create a fire when they crash.”

The email is among documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Joe Albright, a retired journalist. Albright brought safety concerns to the FAA regarding Chambers’ helicopter model, a Robinson R44. He submitted a FOIA request to see documents and correspondence related to the agency’s handling of the Wind River Air controversy.

A host of advocacy groups who implored the FAA to reconsider Wind River Air’s authorization felt there was merit to the hazard.

“Given that the Jackson Hole Airport is proximate to 22 million acres of one of the most intact temperate ecosystems on our planet, that the proposed routes would fly over remote public lands every day, and that the mountain West is predicted to become hotter and drier, the impact of a crash and resulting fire could be devastating,” the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, National Parks Conservation Association and nine other local organizations wrote in a letter.

The groups cited recent research forecasting a 1,700% increase in acres burned in northern Grand Teton National Park going forward this century.

It was Councilor Arne Jorgensen’s idea to require the airport to set aside $70,000 to influence FAA policy. Elwood said he’s waiting to learn more but believes the airport will be expected to hire a professional lobbying firm — and he added that this approach would be a departure from the past.

“The airport, at least in my tenure here, has not enlisted a lobbyist at the Washington level,” Elwood said. “Those communications have been done by staff or board members with the Wyoming delegation to try to influence national policy.”

After making the two amendments, the Town Council unanimously signed off on the nearly $75 million budget, which climbed sharply in an era of budget cuts and government austerity.

Teton County commissioners approved the budget 3-to-2 on May 4, when both the town and county separately OK’d a $16.5 million Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) grant awarded to the airport. Now commissioners will have to reconsider the altered budget, signing off on the town’s ideas for a disaster fund and lobbying apportionment.

Before voting in favor, Stanford had some gripes about the extraordinary growth of the airport enterprise. There’s been a 1,000% leap in the budget figures since 2008, he pointed out.

“There’s no doubt here that the amount of spending has increased exponentially,” Stanford said. “Even just during my tenure on the council, I’ve seen this budget take off faster than a 747.”

Elwood responded that much of the budget growth in fiscal year 2020/21 is from capital projects and taking over jet fuel sales operation, a big moneymaker.

“I think you’ve got to peel the numbers back a bit and really stare at them [to see] what’s really happening at the airport,” the airport director said.