The Value of Backcountry Airstrips
Somewhere amidst the primary results, the debate on the economy, and whatever else in national news was dominating the airwaves last week, it would have been easy to miss another small but significant vote in the House of Representatives. But on September 15th, the House voted to approve H.R. 1473 — a resolution that voiced support for the many backcountry airstrips across the country. Now, granted, the resolution's wording:
"Resolved, That the House of Representatives recognizes the value of recreational aviation and backcountry airstrips located on the Nation's public lands and commends aviators and the various private organizations that maintain these airstrips for public use."
… doesn't quite guarantee funding or lay out any legal requirement for the airstrips' continued existence. But, still. A vote of Congressional support, for little airports most Americans will never use, no less, is certainly a good thing.
The resolution also didn't spell out exactly what that "value" consists of. So I have to guess a little bit on that one. But based on my own experience with backcountry airstrips, I would say their value goes beyond just providing enjoyment and wilderness access for pilots.
Backcountry strips do, of course, provide wonderful access and enjoyment. In 2005, I spent a few days flying with Rich Sugden and a collection of his friends on a "backcountry safari" — which is a fancy way of saying a bunch of pilots going flying and camping in the Idaho wilderness together.
Flying into a backcountry strip doesn't allow you to inch into the wilderness while still maintaining a connection with the outside world, as roads into national parks do. It immerses you, without visible outside connection, in a world where the sounds of the night and the breezes of the day matter far more than any crisis that may have seemed important in the midst of connected, city life.
And there's something very powerful about that.
One night on that 2005 trip, I left the group campfire and, before heading to bed in my pup tent, walked out to the grass runway — a backcountry strip cut out of the forest in the Frank Church Wilderness Area. As I stood in the middle of the runway, I looked up and saw, in the opening the runway provided in the trees, so many stars, all so overwhelmingly dazzling, sharp and layered in the crisp September night, that I almost fell over from dizziness. True story. But I think it's good to be dazzled and humbled by the power of nature and the universe, every now and then.
Of course, the access those backcountry strips offer to remote areas provides more than just the opportunity for valuable life perspective lessons. They provide a link to the outside world for the few people who live in those remote areas, and a way for non-pilot hikers and campers to get supplies, and life-saving rescue in case of emergency. They also offer access for forestry personnel for maintenance, research, emergency evacuation, as well as firefighting support. All of which is, I'm sure, part of what was behind the House Resolution.
But flying my Cheetah from San Francisco to Boston last month, I was reminded again of another incalculable service those forestry and backcountry strips provide. As Connor (my 17-year-old co-pilot) and I flew over the densely forested terrain of the Pennsylvania Allegheny Mountains, we realized with an unsettling jolt that there was simply nowhere to land beneath us, if anything went wrong. No opening, no flat space, no survivable landing spot. It reminded me, in fact, of some of the terrain in the "River of No Return" wilderness I flew through in Idaho — terrain that got its name because the mountains were so steep beside the narrow, twisting, rushing rivers that there was no chance of portaging back upstream.
And then, I heard Connor's voice in my headset saying, "Hey! There's a place — 2 o'clock, on top of that ridge." I looked to where he was pointing and saw a grass strip cut out of the forest. A backcountry strip, on national forest lands. And what would have been our salvation, if we'd had a problem just about then. We wound our way across the rest of the ridgelines, zigging and zagging from one backcountry strip to another, giving a silent whisper of thanks as we passed each one to whoever had cut these strips out of the forest and worked to keep them in an airworthy condition.
The primary argument for backcountry airstrips is that they are an important part of the national air transportation system, offering access to remote areas for both local re-supply and emergency operations. It's harder to convey the value of a place that provides access to stars so densely crowded that they're dizzying. Or the value of places that provide a hope of survival for a pilot over hostile terrain who needs a place to put an airplane down. What is, after all, the value of a single life? Depends on whose life it is, and from which perspective you're viewing the question, of course. But for a pilot looking down on a beautiful but hostile wilderness landscape, those few backcountry strips look like an awfully good idea.
I'm not sure the legislators who co-sponsored H.R. 1473, or the representatives who voted for it, really understood all the reasons why backcountry airstrips are "valuable." But whatever their reasoning, I think they came to the right end point. Those backcountry strips are valuable. So are the people who create and maintain them. So it's nice to see those facts get a little public recognition.