Park: Airport mowed illegally
Mower cut swath outside security fence, possibly near Grand Teton sage grouse lek.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
June 27, 2012
Jackson Hole Airport and Grand Teton National Park officials are investigating what appears to be unauthorized mowing of sagebrush outside the airstrip’s perimeter fence.
An airport employee on June 6 mistook directions and mowed a 2- to 3-mile path through mature sage, bear brush and grass outside the security fence around the airport, officials said. The operation would have been routine if it took place inside the fence, officials said.
Even though portions of the 12- to 13-foot-wide cut run outside the airport’s 533-acre lease, and also through prime sage grouse habitat, the incident was not initially reported to park officials. Grand Teton spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said the park learned about the error from someone who saw the mowing.
“We didn’t hear about it from the board or administration,” Skaggs said. “It’s unfortunate this happened. We are looking into how and why it happened and will determine how to move forward.”
The mowed path runs near one of Grand Teton’s best-known sage grouse leks, which is near the north end of the airport runway.
Before security was heightened after 9/11, the park used to conduct early-morning public viewings of the grouse’s elaborate mating rituals using the airport for access, Skaggs said.
“We’re trying to determine if it would have impacted any nesting areas,” Skaggs said. “They might have gone through where the nesting sites would have been located. The birds usually don’t nest too far from the lek.”
Grand Teton’s relationship with Jackson Hole Airport is similar to that of a landlord and renter, and the airport is expected to notify the park of any major disturbances or changes to the property. Realizing their error, the airport’s board of directors and employees have been contrite in dealing with the park.
“We’re taking this seriously,” airport board Chairman Jack Larimer said. “We hand-delivered a letter of apology to the park and are going to tighten up our communications.
“In a way, we violated the trust between the airport and the park.”
There was a “complete breakdown in communications” that led to the park not finding out directly from airport staff, Larimer said
“There was a breakdown even internally,” he said. “The people who did the mowing didn’t quite understand what they were supposed to do.”
“The whole episode is the airport’s fault,” Larimer said.
Both the park and airport have investigations under way that will determine the extent of the damage. Not many facts are clear at this stage, Larimer said.
“I hate to sound dumb, but at this point we are,” he said.
The airport ran the math and found that a 12.5-foot path around the entire airport’s “5- to 6-” mile fence worked out to 7.5 acres.
Early indications are that about a third of the perimeter was cut, Larimer said.
Because the airport’s perimeter fence does not precisely mirror the leased area, Grand Teton officials are not yet certain what percentage of the mowed area was off limits, Skaggs said. In places there might be a significant buffer outside the fence, she said.
A surveyor is currently in the process of delineating the perimeter and measuring the amount of mowing.
Early findings from the north end of the cut are that all of the mowing was done inside the leased area, Larimer said.
“But it’s still park land,” Larimer said. “They own it all.”
The investigation will take seven to 10 days to complete, Larimer said Monday. The report would also sequence who said what to whom, which will help explain why the incident was not reported, he said.
Airport Manager Ray Bishop said the cutting was significant.
“It seems innocuous, but we’re taking it seriously,” he said. “We’re still in the who, what, where, when, why phase of trying to figure out how this happened.”
Pending its investigation, the park will make a determination about what needs to be done to rectify the mowing mishap.
Any disciplinary action would ultimately be up to park Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott and the National Park Service, Skaggs said.
One possibility would be to require the airport to revegetate the mowed path, she said.
Skaggs said the park and airport have a solid relationship and have communicated well with each other in the past.