Every pilot thinks that his airport is special. Sky Harbor Airport (KDYT) in Duluth, Minn., is special for several reasons, or so say pilots, the people who live near the airport and the government agencies that are charged with managing and protecting not only the airport, but the surrounding area.
Sky Harbor Airport, as the name implies, is a combination landplane and seaplane base. Although it has a hard-surfaced runway, the airport, which is on Minnesota Point, a long, narrow sandbar, is primarily a seaplane base. The approach to the airport is over a grove of old-growth pine trees that are a little too close to the airspace. That leaves local authorities with an uncomfortable situation: Cut down some trees or make changes that limit the use of the airport. Neither is a popular option.
The old-growth forest, known as the Minnesota Point Pine Forest Natural Area, covers 26 acres, of which the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages 18.
“When you say old-growth forest, you are talking about a forest that was there before Europeans settled the land,” said Steve Wilson, regional scientific and natural area specialist with the Minnesota DNR. “This one is made up of red and white pine trees, some of which are over 200 years old. The forest is rare in and of itself, and its setting is unique in North America. It is sitting on the longest freshwater bay mouth sandbar in the world.”
IS RELOCATION THE ANSWER?
Sky Harbor Airport began as a part of early mail delivery by floatplanes from the Twin Ports to isolated towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to Minnesota Point resident and aviation enthusiast Dave Johnson.
“The airport was built on sand dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers out of the commercial shipping lanes in Superior Bay, just west of the Point,” he said. “A public ballfield, a marsh and a small island also have been created along the bay using dredged sand. The airport is still principally a seaplane base, but it does have a non-precision GPS runway, making it one of just a few sites in Northern Minnesota where pilots can switch their planes from wheels to floats.”
The airport has been in its present location since the 1950s, but there are those who think it’s time to close down the field and redevelop the runway land into something else while still protecting the forest.
Dick Gould, a member and past president of the Park Point Community Club, a civic organization in the community, says relocating the airport is the answer.
“According to ‘The Breeze’, which is our local newspaper, the land was given to the citizens of Minnesota back in 1939 to be used for recreation, such as bird watching, hiking, dog walking and so forth. It’s very much used by the citizens, unlike the airport, which is used by maybe 25 people. The airport has taken over that land.”
The airport and the community don’t fit together anymore, he said.
“There are concerns from Homeland Security and the sheriff’s department because it sits below a 800-foot hill that shields it from radar that is supposed to be watching it,” he continued. “If someone came down from Canada and landed there, no one would see them. Another major concern is aircraft that fly low over homes and disturb the citizens, like when the twin-engine airplanes go over the nursing home.”
Gould acknowledges that there are also noise complaints made about powerboats that use the recreational area.
The Park Point Community Club is advocating that the airport be relocated to a piece of property formerly occupied by a steel mill and a cement plant.
“That area was abandoned by U.S. Steel about 30 years ago and is sitting idle,” Gould said. “It is adjacent to the bay and there is plenty of float capacity in that area and room to expand the airport. If an asphalt runway is installed it would also provide a cap to pollution problems because it is a Superfund site.
“The land where the airport is now located would be a wonderful site for housing of higher grade with access to the water,” he continued. “It would turn dramatic taxes for Duluth instead of the airport taking tax dollars from a city that is bankrupt.”
NOT AN OPTION
Moving the airport is not a viable option, countered Brian Ryks, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority, the agency that operates Sky Harbor, as well as Duluth International Airport.
“Moving the airport is tremendously expensive,” he said, noting it would cost between $40 million and $50 million.
“The trees have been an issue for many years,” he said. “One of the first things we did when I came on board four-and-a-half years ago was update the airport layout plan. Part of that was to do an obstruction survey that identified the number of trees in the approach path to the runways. At that point we started working with the DNR to identify our options. We have also been working with the FAA and the Minnesota Department of Transportation Aeronautics division to figure out a compromise so we do not have to impact too many trees.”
Part of the challenge is determining how many trees have to go. The number varies on which study you reference, Ryks said.
“In one study the engineer identified about 32 different clusters of trees on the approach. He began to negotiate with the FAA to make the approach to the airport smaller. Once this was done it was determined that only trees on the south side of the runway would have to be cut. That brought the number of clusters of trees down to five.”
In addition, obstruction lights, 60-foot telephone poles with red lights on top of them, were added to warn pilots about the tall trees.
“We negotiated an agreement with DNR based on the premise that only seven old-growth pine trees would have to be cut or pruned,” said Ryks. “We had public meetings and met with the Duluth Tree Commission. Shortly after that when we got into the design of the project the engineers starting doing more surveying of property ownership and determined that more trees would be impacted. Instead of seven, it was more like 100 to 145 trees. The issue is that you can’t prune an old-growth tree. If you do that, it will die, so you have to take the whole tree.”
According to Ryks, when the scope of the project changed, DNR officials decided that the issue had to be looked again.
TAKING A STEP BACK
“So now we have to take a step back,” he said. “We are exploring two things: what do we have to do in the near term to keep the runway operational; and what is the best long-term solution.”
Items under consideration include moving the runway threshold, changing operational procedures and possibly even realigning the runway.
“Right now Lake Superior is at historically low water levels,” said Johnson. “The Army Corps of Engineers needs to dredge the shipping lanes soon, and they need a place to put the sand. Sky Harbor won’t be forced into giving up its runway, and the forest would actually be protected from future unwanted trouble by the same approach cone that threatens it now. It would be a win-win-win situation, as rare as any tree in the forest. So far, all involved agencies and civic groups are cooperating.”
A petition in public circulation requests the FAA to exempt the trees from cutting as an “extraordinary circumstance” until the solution is finished, he said.
The airport authority is still examining options, noted Ryks.
“We are doing some additional surveys and getting back together with the DNR and the FAA to further explore these options,” he said. “We are also turning off the runway lights and making the airport day-use only because pilots cannot see the trees at night.”
Limiting the airport to daytime use is, at best, a temporary fix, noted the DNR’s Wilson, because the trees will keep growing.
“The last thing the Department of Natural Resources want is someone racking up an airplane because of one of those trees,” he said. “We need to do something to keep that from happening, but the questions are what to do and how fast do we do it?”
“It is my feeling that the airport and the environment can coexist,” said Ryks.
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