Help Save Two Great Airstrips!

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GUEST EDITORIAL. The grass strips serving the towns of Banff and Jasper in Alberta, Canada, are scheduled to close forever. Located in some of the most spectacular hiking, fishing, skiing and flying country in North America, the airports are threatened with closure because Parks Canada says they're not needed and claims that they impede the movement of wildlife (although elk, coyote, deer, wolf, cougar and numerous smaller mammals use the strips as a regular hangout). AVweb member Joe Godfrey just got back from the area, and says that this would be an excellent time for pilots to write a letter to Ottawa before Parliament votes on the closure.

ATIS The grass strips serving the towns of Banff and Jasper in Alberta, Canada, are scheduled to close forever. This fight has been going on for many years, and AOPA and COPA have been helping the local pilots make their case, but if you're the letter writing type, this would be a good time to do it. Canadian Flag There's a bit of Parliamentary juggling left to do before it's a fait accompli, but if you think they're worth saving as destination or diversionary airports, you'd better fire off a letter to Ottawa pretty soon. Parliament plans to take up the issue at the end of March 1997.

I was on a skiing vacation in that area last week and decided to visit the Banff airport to see about an hour of dual. I hadn't had any luck finding an FBO before I left San Diego, and once I got there, I found out why.

Spectacular Country

The town of Banff lies near the eastern edge of Banff National Park, one of four adjacent National Parks. I live at the beach in Southern California, so any mountains are a refreshing change of scenery. But the mountains at Banff are extra spectacular because the thin Bow River Valley means that whether you're driving (the Trans Canada Highway runs through the valley), riding the train (the Canadian Pacific Railroad runs through the valley), skiing, fishing, hiking, or flying, you're enveloped by towering cliffs.

Banff's airport is a 3,000 foot grass strip on the north end of town, elevation 4,583 feet. It's snuggled in a little corridor of flat land between the Trans Canada highway and Cascade Mountain. There's no FBO and no commercial law. There are about nine planes based there year round, and several more snowbirds that come back from warmer climes after the April thaw. It's one of those pure, pristine settings for a general aviation airport that remind you of the glory days of early aviation.

Rumor is that Banff's airport was created in the early 30's by a petulant movie star who wanted easy access to her vacation home. Over the years, it has evolved into a staging area for mountain rescues and forest fire patrols, and, perhaps most importantly, a place for overflights to divert to when the fickle mountain weather changes.

Why Close These Airstrips?

A joint study by Parks Canada and Transport Canada determined that there is little need for the airport for safety reasons. The pilots based at Banff have countered that the "joint study" was authored by a commercial pilot from Victoria, (450 miles west of Banff in a different province and climactic zone) who didn't talk to any of the local pilots and who had flown through the Bow Valley only once. About 60 days a year the east side of the Rockies has upslope conditions which cause North or East winds and cloud blockages and the East side of the mountains. Often the chinook winds and the venturi effect create very high winds at Exshaw, the next airport 25 miles to the east. Apparently the commercial pilot chose to ignore or was unaware of these conditions.

Parks Canada has determined that the airstrip impedes the movement of wildlife. Parks Canada used their staff wildlife biologists to develop their conclusions. The pilots comissioned their own study by three independent wildlife biologists which shows movement of elk, coyote, deer, wolf, cougar and numberous small mammal tracks on the airstrip, adjecent to it or on the lower slopes of Cascade mountain. The pilots' study determined that the actual blockage to animal movement is the Trans Canada Highway fence which runs into Mt. Stoney Squaw less than a mile to the southwest. Parks Canada has no plans to relocate the highway.

A similar situation exists in Jasper, about 150 miles to the northwest.

Parks Canada has decided to close all airports in their parks unless it can be demonstrated that they're needed:

  1. for access to a nearby town (that isn't the case here because the Trans Canda Highway and the Canadian Pacific Railroad serve both Banff and Jasper)...or,

  2. for emergencies or enroute weather diversions.

Environmental Considerations

The more I learned about this the more I thought about the old joke: an environmentalist is someone who thinks it's okay for him to build a house in the woods but wants to keep you from building one. Obviously the pilots that live there and pilots who visit do so because of the natural beauty, and no one would want that to vanish. Parks Canada claims that they need to close the airstrip to promote endangered wildlife, but then they argue that it's okay to have a national highway full of cars, trucks and RV's, a national railroad and the government's heliport just a few hundred feet away. The elk are not shy about using the airport. On hot days they look for shade just like homo erectus. One of the local pilots gave me a picture taken last summer of his 172 with an elk under each wing.

In talking to the local pilots I got the feeling that the Parks and Transport departments had decided to work together to accomplish something neither could do on its own, then tried to steer the facts in their direction. Maybe for the sake of the animals it's the right thing for these airports to close. But I agree with the local pilots that the wildlife study the government based that decision on is far from thorough or independent.

What will happen if these two airstrips close? Local pilots will relocate and be less available for fire patrols and mountain searches. All GA pilots will lose convinent access to a great summer and winter destination, and, since weather reporting stations are far and few between, it's not hard to imagine a dramatic increase in controlled-flight-into-terrain accidents as pilots flying through the valley encounter unexpected conditions and are deprived of a place to divert.

What You Can Do

If you're a Canadian citizen and you think these airports are necessary for safety reasons, send a letter to your MP. I'm told you don't even need a stamp from within Canada. If you're from below the 49th parallel, send a letter to:

Margaret Bloodworth, Deputy Minister
Transport Canada
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
K1A 0N8
or send a fax to: 613 991-0851.

Since the Parks Canada Act states that "Banff and Jasper will have air service," they'll have to amend the Act before they can implement the Bow River study. But hurry, they plan to debate the issue during this session of Parliament.