Hoback resident Tony Chambers secured paperwork on Friday to run scenic helicopter flights based out of Jackson Hole Airport, propelling forward a business idea that’s been vehemently opposed by the community.
Before a vote, Jackson Hole Airport’s staff rotated reading aloud one public comment after the next for over six hours, and all but a dozen or so of the hundreds of emails scorned allowing commercial air tours.
Nevertheless, after making a couple of tweaks, members of the Jackson Hole Airport board of directors unanimously approved a permit for Chambers’ business, Wind River Air, arguing that they were legally obliged to say yes or risk jeopardizing tens of millions of dollars of Federal Aviation Administration funding.
“Respectfully, I would tell you that every one of the board members probably is in alignment with the comments,” Jerry Blann, airport board president, said to livestream listeners before a vote.
Board member John Eastman said rejecting Wind River Air, and thus defying the FAA, would be irresponsible and could ultimately jeopardize commercial air service into Jackson Hole. His board counterpart, Bob McLaurin, agreed.
“As a fiduciary of the airport, I’m going to vote for this,” McLaurin said. “It’d be easy to vote against it. It’d be a very popular thing to do. My friends have asked me to vote against it; my family’s asked me to vote against it.”
Some stakeholders rejected the board’s bind.
“The FAA is not omnipotent,” National Park Service retiree and airport neighbor Joan Anzelmo said. “They can be challenged for good cause.”
Jackson Town Councilor Jim Stanford also urged insubordination to an agency that pulls a lot of airport purse strings. Just yesterday, the airport board opted to spend $2 million to start engineering work on a $40 million runway overhaul — which will be funded primarily by the FAA.
“Wyoming has a long history of not simply taking federal government mandates and swallowing them without putting up a fight,” Stanford said. “This is one issue where I think the community has your backs.”
Naysayers weren’t all the usual suspects. Opposition was sweeping, with people from all walks of life taking the time to weigh in with personalized emails and letters.
Dozens of airport neighbors lambasted the plans, including residents of some of the wealthiest Jackson Hole neighborhoods. Critical letters filtered in from professional skiers, conservationists, pilots, poets, real estate agents, medical doctors, town councilors, tourists, safari guides, biologists, botanists, acoustic ecologists, small-business owners, wildlife capture specialists, federal land managers, Army veterans and climbing guides. One 8-year-old resident wrote in urging a “no” vote. There were a dozen or so supportive comments as well.
Blann asked Chambers if hearing six-plus hours of public comment made him want to withdraw the proposal. He declined.
“I’d like to be given an opportunity to prove that I can do what I say I can do,” Chambers said.
Chambers has said repeatedly that be believes he can create a helicopter tour business that works for Jackson Hole. Most of the community, judging by their response, don’t think that’s doable.
A number of residents and organizations criticized the airport for advancing the plans amid a global pandemic that prevents in-person participation.
Chambers submitted his plans nearly two years ago. The airport has held a public meeting, appealed to the FAA and held off on taking a vote twice, including last week when a livestream failed.
Still, dozens of commenters criticized the board for making a controversial decision not essential to the airport operation amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an era when in-person participation isn’t permitted. Blann said there was more public interest in Wind River Air’s application than any other issue of his 20 years on the airport board.
Board members made two amendments to Chambers’ agreement. They snipped the contract from three years to one, a decision that means the airport must abridge all similar contracts going forward. They also added language so that Chambers must engage in a voluntary air tour management plan, vetting his flight plans with the National Park Service, Bridger-Teton National Forest, National Elk Refuge, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the FAA.
Per the terms of his new permit, Chambers could potentially start flights in May — so, next week. He told the board that, because of the pandemic, he intended to hold off until it’s “perfectly safe” and “perfectly allowed.”