Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jumpstarting airport EIS could be troublesome

Airport in Jackson, Wyo., located in sage grouse habitat

Express Staff Writer

A commercial flight takes off at Friedman Memorial Airport. Express file photo

If flight reliability at Friedman Memorial Airport cannot be improved by technological changes to help sustain commercial air service there, city and county officials could work together to persuade the Federal Aviation Administration to reconsider alternative airport sites.

Airport Manager Rick Baird said during a public meeting Thursday, Dec. 8, that the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority is investigating possible upgrades to onboard airplane navigation systems, in advance of a public meeting scheduled for February.

Baird was addressing about 30 people at a meeting held at Wood River High School to provide information and gather public comment on airport issues.

The FAA recently suspended environmental impact studies of two possible new airport sites, citing "increased anticipated costs of the project and potential impacts to wildlife."

The most-preferred site, called Site 10A, east of state Highway 75 just north of the Lincoln County line, became problematic due to rising costs and recognition of the area as important habitat for greater sage grouse. In March, the sage grouse became a prime candidate for the federal endangered species list, which would afford it increased federal protection.

"The FAA does not want to handle a project that could be flash point for why the sage grouse is listed," Baird said.

Meanwhile, airport officials in Jackson, Wyo., continue to be challenged by sage grouse that are competing for air space with human air traffic.

The airport is nearby, or within a core sage grouse area, reported the Jackson Hole News & Guide in November.

The newspaper reported that sage grouse collisions with aircraft at Jackson Hole Airport have roughly doubled in the past year, despite recent declines in both the number of airplanes and the number of grouse at the airport.

The report also stated that in 2005, a sage grouse collision caused "substantial" damage to a business jet.

Biologist Bryan Bedrosian, who has studied sage grouse at the airport for several years, told the newspaper that scheduling flight patterns of aircraft to accommodate the birds could provide a solution.

"All of our data suggest that sage grouse are going to have their flight movements first thing in the morning and at dusk," he said. "Once they're at their day location, they pretty much stay put."

Baird said restarting the environmental impact study of Site 10A and other alternative airport sites in and around Blaine County is not out of the question. He also said some of the other 16 potential airport relocation sites could also be revisited, but that county, city and airport leaders would have to let the FAA know that this is the direction they would like to take.

"It's up to you," he said.

Baird also said Hailey and Blaine County leaders would likely have to work together to raise about $100 million for the "public" portion of a replacement airport, expected to cost upwards of $300 million.

"The cost is real and the share is real," he said.

The Airport Authority and the FAA have been studying the possibility of relocating Friedman after the FAA determined that Friedman might have to be expanded to meet regulations to serve certain types of larger aircraft. The process has been going on for approximately a decade.

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