Friday, April 3, 2009

Bush plane mailman loses his route

Wilderness properties have gotten mail by plane for 34 years

Express Staff Writer

Few business owners can claim as strong a reliance from their customers as Ray Arnold of Cascade.

For Arnold, a longtime central Idaho backcountry pilot, going to work means weekly forays into the remote airspace over the sprawling 2.3-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower 48 states. These year-round flights—whether during the brilliant blue-sky days of summer or the harrowing cold of mid-winter—are the only link residents of about 20 backcountry ranches, all private inholdings in the middle of the Frank Church, have to the outside world.

Neither rain, nor even snow stops Arnold, who attaches skis to his trusty Cessna 185 during the winter so he can land on snowy runways. Under a contract with the U.S. Postal Service, Arnold has delivered mail and supplies to these far-flung outposts for 34 years. The flight, which leaves from an airstrip in Cascade, is the last backcountry airmail route in the lower 48 states.

But a decision by Postal Service officials in Washington D.C. to cancel the one-of-a-kind contract beginning June 30 may spell an end to Arnold's famous central Idaho flight. To the dismay of residents in the remote area, the federal agency recently notified the seasoned pilot that it will not be renewing its contract with him.

The Postal Service is grappling with a $6 billion budget hole and, a spokesman said, is trying to find ways to save money.

But the move has Arnold and the backcountry residents he serves pleading with the Postal Service to reverse the decision and reinstate the $46,000 annual contract. Many of the residences are 50 miles or more by trail from the nearest road.

"Some of these people don't get out but once a year," Arnold said in an interview. "It's going to be harder for them to get their groceries."

Arnold said Postal Service officials in Washington can't comprehend why the mail can't be delivered in other ways. He was given no reason for the contract termination.

Combining what he makes from the airmail route with pay for delivering supplies has allowed Arnold and his wife, Carol Arnold, to keep the backcountry route in the air.

"The services that Ray and Carol provide are a big deal for everybody back here," said Judd Deboer, the owner of a backcountry residence at Yellow Pine Bar on the Salmon. "It's a pretty serious situation."

Not just any pilot would attempt to fly the route Arnold has learned so well over the decades. Many of the ranches he flies to with mail, medical supplies and other necessities are found along the deep, cliff-lined canyons of the Middle Fork of the Salmon, main Salmon and Big Creek.

But despite the importance of the service for these remote residences, cost-saving efforts have taken precedence. The Postal Service will provide free post office boxes in Cascade to those along the route, said Al DeSarro, spokesman for the agency's western region.

DeSarro said the Postal Service, which isn't supported by taxes, but relies entirely on postal revenue, can't afford to continue funding the route. He said the agency is facing a $6 billion deficit this year.

"We're being affected by the economy," he said. "This was a national decision."

Jason Kauffman:

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