Locals seek talks with USFS about funding for needed upgrades
By Ann McCreary
Local elected officials are requesting a meeting in the Methow Valley with the regional head of the U.S. Forest Service to discuss how funding can be obtained to ensure that the North Cascades Smokejumper Base (NCSB) remains in the valley.
The Forest Service conducted an assessment of the smokejumper base last year, which found that as much as $5 million would be needed for improvements at the 77-year-old base to keep it operating in the Methow Valley. The alternative would be to move the base to Wenatchee, the Forest Service concluded.
Okanogan County commissioners, along with the mayors of Twisp, Winthrop and Pateros, are asking Jim Pena, regional forester for the Pacific Northwest Region, to join them in a meeting in early 2018.
The goal of the meeting would be to discuss how to find the money needed to “refurbish the base and keep it in operation,” the officials wrote in a letter to Pena.
“At that meeting, we respectfully request that you describe the process by which an appropriation would be obtained, where the Forest Service is in that process, how you intend to report out on progress and how we can most effectively support the process and the Forest Service’s work,” the letter said.
The funding is needed to demolish three old buildings that are too close to the runway, in violation of federal aviation regulations, and to construct a new building at the base, according to the Forest Service’s Preliminary Project Analysis (PPA). The analysis, which was completed in August, also provided lower cost construction options.
The analysis found retaining the base in the Methow Valley was preferable primarily due to the socio-economic impact of moving jobs from the small communities of Winthrop and Twisp. Approximately 45 jobs are affiliated with the base, making it the fourth- or fifth-largest employer in the valley, and loss of those jobs would have a significant and adverse impact on the Methow Valley economy, the analysis found.
The base, known as the “the birthplace of smokejumping,” offers public tours that draw about 5,000 visitors each year.
The news that the base will remain at its historic location for at least a couple of years was welcomed by local officials who have lobbied to keep it in the Methow Valley. But they also expressed concern about securing the funding to make the improvements outlined in the analysis.
“The base is an emergency response, economic and cultural cornerstone of our community, and its loss would be devastating both locally and regionally,” the letter from the commissioners and mayors said. “Our coalition of elected leaders and the communities we represent stand ready to work with you to fund your recommendation in the Preliminary Project Analysis.”
The smokejumper base is located at the Methow Valley State Airport between Twisp and Winthrop. The analysis of the base was prompted by the need to remove three buildings — an office, a parachute loft and a saw maintenance shack — that are within an “object free area” at the state-run airport. The buildings are allowed under a waiver but jeopardize future federal funding for the airport because they are in violation of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards, according to the analysis.
In addition to demolishing the buildings, the analysis concluded that a new building to replace those facilities would need to be built somewhere on the 19-acre site that is owned by the Forest Service. The $5.2 million construction estimate, based on a 2015 analysis done for the Forest Service, was for a building using conventional methods such as wood framing and concrete block construction.
The analysis completed last August recommended a “scaled down, phased approach” that calls for construction of a metal building at a cost of $2.8 million. A second option proposes building an addition to an existing warehouse at a total cost of $2.2 million. All three estimates include demolition costs for the buildings by the runway, and taxiway and ramp improvements.
The analysis was completed by Northstar Technology Corp., independent consultants hired by the Forest Service. The team conducted site visits and evaluated three proposed base locations — the Methow Valley, Wenatchee and Yakima (which was ultimately eliminated from consideration). Criteria included fire occurrences and response times, socio-economic impacts to the community and employees, implementation time and costs, and time required to conduct smokejumper training.
The analysis found that many of the old buildings at the North Cascades base are badly in need of upgrades, repairs or replacement, such as 1950s-era crew quarters that are “deficient, unsafe and do not meet life/safety codes for sleeping quarters … and should be closed or replaced as soon as possible.”
The Methow Valley base serves several other agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources, the National Park Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The consultants suggested that the Forest Service explore developing “a multi-agency partnership” which may make funding easier to obtain.
Consultants also said the 19-acre site owned by the Forest Service is larger than needed, and suggested that the Forest Service could consider selling or transferring ownership to help pay for needed improvements.