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FAA May Have Solved Duluth Airport Approach Dispute

Sky Harbor South Approach
This aerial view of the south approach to Duluth’s Sky Harbor Airport clearly shows the trees that the FAA says need to go.
Larger view

September 2, 2010 — A dispute over how to comply with an FAA directive to remove or top off large, old-growth trees that are encroaching on the approach of Duluth, Minnesota’s Sky Harbor Airport (DYT) may have been solved last week when the FAA announced that rather than cutting down nearly 1,200 trees near the runway - anathema to environmental interests - the airport could instead put up obstruction lights to warn pilots of the trees.

The airport, in operation since the late 1930s, is located on picturesque Park Point on Lake Superior and experiences about 13,000 operations annually on its 3,050-ft runway 14/32, or about 36 per day, according to the FAA. It serves as a U.S. Customs Port of Entry as well as a reliever airport to Duluth International Airport, conveniently located close to the city’s business district. The airport has an economic impact o $1.8 million and supports 28 full-time jobs.

But large red and white pines growing along the approach have caused the FAA to act. The airport has an interim agreement with the FAA to operate on a shortened runway with no night operations and no navigational aids. A Federal Environmental Assessment (EA) commissioned by the FAA is now under way, with a separate tree study to determine their ages and expected growth rates, as well as respond to various issues raised throughout the environmental scoping process. That study is expected to be completed later this year.

The Duluth Tree Commission objected to the city council that it favored neither of the two proposals being studied in the EA, one that would shift the runway threshold away from the forest and build an extension into the bay at a cost of about $4 million and impacting (remove or top off) 200 trees. The other option is to reconstruct the runway to the southwest and impact 43 trees, with a total cost of $6 million.

But Duluth Airport Authority (DAA) Executive Director Brian Ryks said the Tree Commission was jumping the gun. “The tree study currently underway will further define the number of trees impacted and the distance of the penetrations of subject trees into airport approach surfaces,” he wrote to the city council. “When the tree study is complete, the DAA will continue to work with the technical team of the forestry and ecology specialists to determine where and if tree impacts will occur and what the overall forest effects will be.”

EAA Chapter 272, which has its headquarters in twin city Superior, Wisconsin, but has flown hundreds of Young Eagles flights out of DYT, staunchly defends the airport. In a recent letter to the city council, Chapter President Bill Irving dismisses the tree commission’s claims that proposed cutting and topping remedies would destroy the forest, saying that “there are literally thousands of trees in the forest,” and that “Most if not the majority of trees that make up this forest were planted.  Remember, trees are a renewable resource.”

“I believe that there is a viable compromise that will allow the preservation of the pine forest, and make aircraft operations safe at the same time.”

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