The National Park Service has never been compensated for the Grand Teton National Park land needed to build Jackson Hole Airport back in the 1980s. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) says it’s high time for this 25-year old debt to be paid, and suggests how the airport can raise the money.
Several environmental organizations have cited safety concerns in requesting that the Park Servicedelay renewing the lease agreement that permits the Jackson Hole Airport to operate within the borders of Grand Teton National Park. Now TNC has reminded the Park Service that the airport has never discharged its NEPA-mandated requirement to compensate the park for the 533 acres of leased parkland – nearly one square mile – that represents the airport’s footprint.
It’s a heavy footprint, too. The airport’s 128 paved-over acres are a total loss to the park, and the rest of the acreage cannot be used by elk, bison, and many other animals that inhabit the park. This is not to mention increased noise, highway traffic, private land development, and other airport-associated factors negatively impacting the quality of adjacent parkland.
Airport officials do not deny that the airport has a legal obligation to pay the park for its footprint. The rub, they say, has been a lack of resources to do that. Critics respond that a quarter of a century should be plenty enough time to find the money needed to pay this debt, and that any suggestion to the contrary is very disingenuous. There are few (if any) other examples of off-site mitigation obligations being allowed to slip for this long.
Off-site mitigation is the route the airport will have to take to discharge this debt. Mitigation might take the form of buying suitable land (in which case acre-for-acre replacement would be the likely minimum) or by making substantial contributions to a mitigation fund. TNC has suggested that the airport should discharge its debt to Grand Teton by helping the park purchase private inholdings. With the 900 acres of inholdings in Grand Teton being valued in the neighborhood of $80 million, the park could certainly use all the help it can get.
TNC says that the airport could raise the money by adding a surcharge to airline tickets. The surcharge that TNC has suggested, $5 per ticket, would raise about $3 million a year.
Airport officials think the proposal is interesting, but needs further study. They’ve said that it’s not clear that the ticket surcharge would be legal under current rules, and that legislation might be required.
Paul Hanson, the director of TNC’s Greater Yellowstone program, doesn’t want the airport to be given any more latitude for foot-dragging on this issue. It’s TNC’s official position that off-site mitigation for the airport’s footprint should be included in the airport lease extension environmental assessment currently in preparation.