Helicopter pilot Tony Chambers wants to launch a scenic ride business from the Jackson Hole Airport in Grand Teton National Park, but faces a headwind from the preserve and other conservationists.
Chambers, a Hoback Junction resident who hangars his Robinson 44 four-seat helicopter in Pinedale, told WyoFile he has been working on securing an agreement with the Jackson Hole Airport Board to operate commercially from its airstrip. The Jackson Hole Airport is the only such facility located completely in a national park, and operates under a lease with the federal government. Various noise-related laws, stipulations and rules govern flights in and near park airspace. Chambers’ business plan reflects Wyoming priorities, he said. “I feel like I’m following the state’s initiative to create other sectors of the economy,” specifically in tourism and hospitality, he said. “I’m not applying for any kind of flights or tours in Grand Teton National Park.”
The tours would fly over the park on departure and again before landing at the airport, however. Chambers said a standard tour, as currently proposed, would take place mostly over the Bridger-Teton National Forest east of the park.
“I’m trying to create something that’s an asset to the community and not a thorn,” Chambers said.
But some, including the park itself, already find the idea of scenic helicopter rides launching from and returning to the airport prickly. Park Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail outlined numerous problems his agency sees with the helicopter proposal in a letter (see below). “[W]e oppose your project,” he wrote to Chambers in correspondence dated July 11.
It was a helicopter rescue in the Tetons that spurred Chambers’ interest in flying, according to his story posted on his company’s website Wind River Air, LLC. He was camped above 11,000 feet at the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton when a Park Service rescue ship flew above him and “landed on the Upper Saddle,” the account reads. “And, at that moment, Tony knew that someday he too would be a capable helicopter pilot.”
A Salt Lake City native who has lived in both Jackson and Sublette County, Chambers worked in construction and volunteered for years with Sublette’s Tip Top Search and Rescue. He earned his commercial pilot’s license in 2017. Since then, he’s worked toward getting a non-tenant special use agreement to operate commercially from the Jackson Hole airport, he said. A standard helicopter tour proposed under his plan would pick people up at the airport and fly them east over park land and over part of the National Elk Refuge before carrying them above the national forest on the east side of Jackson Hole.
The airship would turn north and fly toward Moran at the north end of the valley. It would then return to the airport within about a half hour.
“The routes would be similar to the existing [fixed-wing] operator Fly Jackson Hole,” he said. “You could make variations of that.”
The Robinson 44, while in the valley, could be used for other operations, he said, such as helping with wildlife surveys or habitat photography. He has worked on aerial pipeline and power-line inspections with Sublette County Weed and Pest District, and envisions the chopper being useful for monitoring conservation easements, he said.
“I’m trying to figure out a way [to] make this a community asset,” Chambers said.
Chambers said Airport Executive Director Jim Elwood told him to engage community members about his plan. Since then he’s talked to two Jackson Town Council members, the owners of a remote guest ranch, Bridger-Teton officials, National Elk Refuge personnel and national park representatives, Chambers said.
Chambers’ engagements didn’t produce a bushel of full-throated endorsements, according to his accounts of the meetings. Bridger-Teton officials said Chambers didn’t need permission unless he was going to land on the forest — which he is not — he said. Over Forest Service wilderness areas, where Chambers said he does not intend to fly, aircraft are supposed to stay at least 2,000 feet above the ground.
Asked if he was disappointed in Grand Teton National Park’s response, Chambers said “very much so,” But, he said, “they have a resource to protect. That’s their job.”
The National Park Service mandate is to conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects and wildlife and to provide for public enjoyment while leaving resources unimpaired for future generations.
The agency considers sound intrusion as it seeks to fulfill that mission.
By Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
wyofile.com Via Wyoming News Exchange