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Pilots fight to preserve access to backcountry airstrips

Warn against dangerous precedent

Pilots and airport advocates are mobilizing in Utah after a draft plan published by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would revoke aircraft access to more than a dozen airstrips in the Bears Ears National Monument.

Utah offers stunning scenery and remote backcountry flying. Pilots are pushing back against revoked access to more than a dozen backcountry airstrips in the state’s Bears Ears National Monument because of a draft plan from the Bureau of Land Management. Photo by Chris Rose.

The Bears Ears National Monument is made up of more than 1.3 million acres of protected public land in Utah, featuring a wide range of landscapes and a rich history of Native American life. It is jointly managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM—which recently published a Draft Resource Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement that includes a provision that would preserve aircraft access to only two of the 18 airstrips within the boundaries of the national monument, Bluff Airport and Fry Canyon Field.

This proposal, by default, would close the remaining 16 backcountry airstrips. While the draft plan does state that approval of other airstrips is possible, it does not specify when, or if ever, that would occur.

Aviation advocacy groups are pushing back on this restriction proposal, arguing these backcountry airstrips go virtually unseen, are minimally impactful, and have a long history. AOPA supports these efforts, as any attempt to restrict or prohibit operations on public land is a threat to the freedom to fly.

The advocacy groups, led by the Utah Back Country Pilots Association (UBCP) and including the Recreational Aviation Foundation and others, are asking for support from pilots across the United States now that the BLM draft is open for public comment. The groups have provided guidance on how the main concerns of aviators should be communicated and what information comments should contain to appropriately convey concern while also highlighting the benefits of general aviation operations that include the public benefit of accessing remote areas for emergency operations like firefighting, search and rescue, and more.

According to the call to action from the UBCP, “Comments should be personal and reflect your opinions on the importance of aviation’s access to our public lands. They should also be substantive by addressing aircraft’s limited noise signatures, indistinguishable impact on public lands, and how airstrips provide access to other recreational users who may be in need of help.”

The public comment period is open through June 11, and pilots are encouraged to voice their support to help preserve access to these recreational assets.

The UBCP Board has identified the following airstrips that are located within the proposed Bears Ears National Monument: Brown’s Rim, Clay Hills Crossing,  Dark Canyon North, Dark Canyon South, Deer Flat, Dry Fork Canyon, Fry Canyon, Fry Canyon South, Hammond/Kigalia Point, Lockhart Basin, Lockhart Road, Long Canyon, Mule Canyon, Polly Mesa, Red House Spring, Sipapu Bridge, Valley of the Gods. Image courtesy of Roy Evans.“Even if a pilot or aviation enthusiast is not currently a backcountry aviator, they may be in the future,” said UBCP President Roy Evans. “If we sit idly by while our freedoms to fly are eroded on every flank without fighting back, the incredible experience of flying in our nation’s backcountry airstrips will not be available to those who come after us.”

Long-established backcountry airstrips are part of the fabric of the freedom to fly in the United States, shaping aviation history and experience.

“All 18 of the airstrips have existed and been in use for the past 40-70 years and we request that none of them be closed or banned arbitrarily without first evaluating the merits of each,” the RAF said.

AOPA is seeing a troubling nationwide trend of agencies, like the BLM, restricting or prohibiting aircraft operations on public lands. Ensuring these freedoms to fly are protected is a top priority for AOPA and advocacy organizations who recognize that if attempts to curtail access to these airstrips succeed, not only is our collective freedom to fly diminished, but safety is also impacted as fewer strips are visible and available for emergency operations such as firefighting, rescue, or aircraft landings as a result of an in-flight emergency.

Lillian Geil
Communications Specialist
Communications Specialist Lillian Geil is a student pilot and a graduate of Columbia University who joined AOPA in 2021.
Topics: Advocacy, Airport Advocacy, Airport

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