USFS supports request to fund needed upgrades
By Ann McCreary
Improvements at the North Cascades Smokejumper Base (NCSB) are ranked as the top priority for aviation-related infrastructure funding this year by the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region, the regional office said Tuesday (May 1).
Regional Forester Jim Peña was preparing a list of funding requests for submission Tuesday to the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., and has put NCSB at the top of the list of aviation infrastructure projects that need funding in the region.
That top ranking will be welcome news to local elected officials who met last week with Peña, who leads the Forest Service in Oregon and Washington, to advocate for keeping the historic base at its home in the Methow Valley.
“As far as the region is concerned, the North Cascades Smokejumper Base is the No. 1 project for funding for this pool of money,” Nicholas Roussos Goldstein, legislative affairs specialist for the Pacific Northwest Region, said Tuesday afternoon.
The “pool of money” Goldstein referenced is $65 million allocated by Congress this year to the Forest Service for “wildland fire aviation safety and modernization,” including upgrades to facilities like NCSB.
Although NCSB is at the top of the Pacific Northwest Region’s list of aviation infrastructure funding requests, it will be weighed against requests from the nation’s other nine regions, Goldstein said.
Local elected officials met last week with Peña, who traveled to the Methow Valley at the request of Okanogan County commissioners to discuss the future of the 78-year-old smokejumper base. The Forest Service last year determined that as much as $5.2 million is needed for improvements at the base if it is to remain at its historic home in the Methow Valley.
At the meeting, held April 24 at TwispWorks, Peña said NCSB would be one of his top priorities for aviation-related project funding when he submitted his requests to Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C. But he cautioned that Forest Service regions around the nation are competing for a limited pot of money.
Peña, whose office is in Portland, Oregon, was joined by Mike Williams, forest supervisor for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Wenatchee, which oversees the smokejumper base. Several Forest Service staff members from Portland and Wenatchee also came to the meeting.
“My interest is in maintaining and improving the smokejumper base,” Williams said. “This is not just a Forest [Service] resource, it is a national and regional resource,” he said.
NCSB is known as the “birthplace of smokejumping,” because the first experimental jumps by firefighters took place there in 1939. County commissioners, along with local mayors and community leaders, have been leading a campaign to keep the smokejumper base in the Methow Valley. They requested the meeting with Forest Service officials to explore ways to work together and secure the money needed to maintain the base in the Methow Valley.
Their concern stems from a Forest Service analysis conducted last year that evaluated the economic feasibility of closing the historic base at the Methow Valley State Airport and moving smokejumping operations to Wenatchee or Yakima. That analysis was prompted by the need to move three buildings that are too close to the airport runway, in violation of federal aviation regulations.
The Forest Service concluded that the base should stay at its current location for now, primarily because of its social and economic significance to the Methow Valley. However, maintaining the base here would be contingent on securing funding, within the next two or three years, to remove the three buildings near the runway and construct a building to replace them. The analysis outlined three options for removing and replacing the buildings, with costs ranging from $2.2-$5.2 million.
If funding cannot be obtained within the two- to three-year timeline, the future of the base in the Methow Valley would not be guaranteed, according to the analysis, and that deadline has local officials worried.
“As you can see, this is a very important issue for us as elected officials,” said County Commissioner Andy Hover, who was joined at the meeting by County Commissioner Jim DeTro and the mayors of Twisp, Winthrop and Pateros.
“The North Cascades Smokejumper Base is a big economic piece and historic piece of this community. This group shows our commitment to keeping the facility here. How can we partner in trying to facilitate funding to keep the base here?” Hover asked Peña. “We want to make sure we’re working quickly and helping in any way we can.”
“The North Cascades Smokejumper Base … has become embedded in the community from economic and cultural standpoints,” Peña said. “The challenge is it has been there a long time and our budget hasn’t kept up with the need to modernize and maintain facilities. The reality is some of the buildings are 1950s-era that are tough to maintain.”
If the project receives funding, Peña said at the meeting last week, the first step would be to develop a site plan and schedule. Then an environmental assessment would be required, because of the “historical nature” of the buildings at the base. He said the project would likely be planned to be completed in phases. “Because of limited facilities funding, many projects take multiple years,” Peña said.
“I’ve heard you say you want to maintain the base here, and I want to verify … that is indeed the case,” Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody said. “We’ve got a lot of skin in this game. We don’t want, in a year or two, to hear it’s not going to [stay].”
“Our intent is to keep it” in the Methow Valley, Peña responded. However, he said, he could not provide “unreserved commitment that it would be here forever.”
Hover asked whether other funding, such as grants or private donations, could be utilized in addition to federal dollars for needed upgrades at the base. He noted that the smokejumper base was recently named the top project of significance by the North Central Washington Economic Development District, which makes it more competitive for federal, state and private grants. Peña said he would “need to work with our contract people” to determine how grants might be applied to the project.
NCSB was selected by the economic development district for its benefits to the regional economy and community. Approximately 45 jobs are affiliated with the base, making it among the top five largest employers in the Methow Valley. Loss of those jobs would have a significant and adverse impact on the local economy, according to the forest service analysis of the base.
The base’s home at the Methow Valley State Airport, located between Twisp and Winthrop, is also important to the viability of the airport, Hover said. “The Forest Service is the largest recipient of services provided by the state airport,” Hover said. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which manages the state airport, is planning a $5 million runway paving project this year at the airport, Hover said. “That shows the willingness of the state to put money into that airport.”
Hover asked whether the Forest Service has been directed by WSDOT to remove the buildings that are too close to the runway. The buildings – an office, a saw maintenance shack and a parachute loft – are within an area that is required to be “object free” under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards.
Waiting for plans
David Fleckenstein, aviation director for WSDOT, also attended the meeting and said the FAA “has granted us a bye” until the Methow Valley airport master plan can be aligned with the Forest Service’s site plans for the smokejumper base. Forest Service officials said work will begin on the NCSB site plan, which is expected to cost about $250,000, as soon as funding is allocated.
The FAA expects the Methow Valley State Airport to address the issue of the three nonconforming Forest Service buildings that are within the object-free area in the next airport master plan that will take effect in 2021, Fleckenstein said.
The Methow Valley airport is currently supported with federal funding from the FAA, which includes the upcoming runway paving project due to begin in mid-May, Fleckenstein said. “It is possible that future federal funds for Methow Valley State Airport could be withheld if we do not adequately address the three nonconforming buildings in the next master plan update,” he said.
NCSB serves several other agencies such as the state Department of Natural Resources, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and state and local emergency rescue groups, the Forest Service analysis noted. The 19-acre site is larger than needed for the smokejumper operation, and sale or lease of a portion of the property to other entities could assist with needed funding, the analysis said.
“Has there been any thought to selling part of the base to another agency to help pay, or turn it into a multi-use facility?” Hover asked. That concept could be explored when a site plan is developed, Peña said. “If another agency wants to consider collaborating on site, we’d certainly be open to it.”
Peña assured local officials that his office will maintain contact with them about the status of funding for the smokejumper base as the process moves forward.