Teton helicopter tours in limbo after crowd shows opposition


A pilot is uncertain whether he will try to operate helicopter tours from the airport in Grand Teton National Park after a former park superintendent called his plan “incompatible and inappropriate.”

Pilot and entrepreneur Tony Chambers revealed his uncertainty to WyoFile following a public session in which about 100 people opposed his proposal. About five people supported the plan to fly scenic tours out of the Jackson Hole Airport, across parts of Grand Teton National Park and over National Elk Refuge and National Forest land, including wilderness areas. 

“It was what I expected,” Chambers told WyoFile after the public comment session, which was arranged by the Jackson Hole Airport Board. Officials say the board is virtually obliged under FAA rules to issue a permit. Asked whether he would move forward and seek that permit, Chambers said, “I’m not sure.”

Former Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott, a member of the airport board, said there is a consideration beyond legal and statutory ones that a proponent of such a venture should weigh. Laws and rules might allow the flights, she said, and “then you’re confronted with your moral compass.

“This,” she continued, “is an incompatible and inappropriate use in any national park, adjacent to a national park in national forests,” and over wilderness areas.

Chambers is not on the Dec. 18 airport board agenda, he and officials indicated, out of deference for the hearing and to give himself and others time to digest the community reaction. He told the audience he hoped to wrap up airport authorization for Wind River Air in 60 days.

Only three entities can prevent the enterprise from launching, airport officials said. Chambers has FAA permission authorizing his flights, he said, but can choose to withdraw his plan. The FAA is the second entity, but it generally doesn’t discriminate against types of operations unless safety is at issue.

Congress is the third entity. A representative of the National Parks Conservation Association said that her group could pursue action in Washington, D.C.

“Rules can be changed,” said Sharon Mader, the group’s senior program manager in the Northern Rockies region. “I would like you to listen to the voices here.”

Jackson Hole Airport is the only commercial airport located completely in a national park. Some special rules apply. It operates under a lease agreement with the Department of the Interior. Rules prohibit scenic flights that originate at the airport from operating over mapped noise-sensitive areas in the reserve.

Those mapped areas include the Teton Mountains, the valley floor west of the park’s main thoroughfare, Highway 191, plus the northern end of the park. Any aircraft flying into or out of Jackson Hole Airport crosses some park property.

Chambers has suggested a couple of routes his tours might take. He said they could fly out of the park and over Elk Refuge and National Forest land, including parts of the Gros Ventre Wilderness. Another route could fly over the Jedediah Smith Wilderness of the Targhee National Forest just west of the Teton Range.

He told the group he prioritizes safety and discounted concerns over the Robinson R44 four-person helicopter he owns and would use. The world’s best-selling civilian helicopter has a history of deadly crashes that outpaces other makes and models, according to a Los Angeles Times article.

Wind River Air would operate several days a week offering several flights a day, Chambers told the audience. “I don’t envision it growing into several helicopters,” he said.

Noise is important, Chambers said. His son, one of a handful of supporters, said “there are louder automobiles,” than the R44.

“To resist startups like this would be to resist commerce,” Oliver Chambers told the group. A few more speakers backed Chambers, including Stefan Fodor, who said helicopters would not affect wildlife, as many fear. The airport already hosts “hundreds of flights a day,” he said. 

The authority and decision framework surrounding the issue is off-kilter, a Yale professor and Jackson resident told airport board members. “What’s the common interest,” that should be promoted, asked Susan Clark, adjunct professor of wildlife ecology and policy sciences at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Her research in Jackson Hole hasn’t suggested any public benefits from the flights, she said. On the other hand, “there are clearly special interests in play here.”

The vice chairman of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Kirk Davenport, also saw a public sacrifice on the altar of private profit. “I’m asking as a fellow community member not to monetize this,” he said to Chambers. If the tours fly, “everyone else will give up a little bit of their peace.”

Many opponents put noise intrusion on the wild landscape as the principal of their worries.

“I want to be able to go into the wilderness and not have to listen to airplanes of any kind,” Susan Danford said. “I’m 76 and I’m still willing to hike my butt out there and have that experience.”

Kelly resident Bev Boynton said “it’s fundamental to a wilderness area that you have quiet and tranquility.”

Hikers of the Teton Crest Trail, “one of the finest treks,” won’t come to the Tetons when they hear of the air tours said Mike Scheller, an Alta resident. “Tony’s going to be flying over them five days [a week], four times a day,” he said.

Chambers’ tours would be “another grain of sand adding to the problem” of noise pollution in Grand Teton, said retired climbing ranger Chris Harder. Colleague Jim Springer said he’s “looked down into the cockpits” of helicopters while climbing Guide’s Wall in Cascade Canyon, even though airships are supposed to fly considerably higher.

Wilson resident Joe Albright told the group he has asked federal authorities to reconsider their authorization for Chambers’ flights, principally on safety grounds. He questioned the helicopter’s ability to operate at the elevations contemplated on some of Chambers’ proposed routes.

Botanist Frances Clark appeared to summarize the majority opinion that Chambers’ operation would be “a thrill for very few people with an impact to many.” A helicopter tour is “sort of like having a Pterodactyl over your head,” she said.

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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