The Struggle for Tuweep MarkSpencer

By Mark Spencer 


Who would believe that 12 years after Tuweep’s closure by Arizona’s State Trust Land Department that we’d still not see the end of our struggle to regain access to this long established and historic airstrip? The APA’s and RAF’s efforts here might win a record for tenacity or persistence, as a recent email to me from the land department stated, “You are wonderfully persistent...” I have always held that our success in the Arizona backcountry has been the result of relationship and trust building with federal land managers, and the aviation community’s follow through on its commitment to the land manager, but I must admit that, to date, this has not worked with the Arizona Land Department (ASLD). Perhaps we got off on the wrong foot with them, I don’t know, but we have continued to offer the olive branch at every turn we could. In fact, when we first met the new governor’s choice for Land Commissioner, Lisa Atkins, in late 2015, we agreed to start afresh and give her an opportunity to work out a new approach with us, an approach that we believed was at least in an outline form after our second meeting in April of 2016. We even agreed forego our continued legislative pressure on ASLD.

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We were told that the department was working on the approach with the Department of Administration, but after waiting 8 months, in a call with the ASLD’s director of policy in late December 2016, we learned that the commissioner had solicited the new Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent's opinion on restoring GA’s access to Tuweep and that the new park superintendent had actually written a letter to Commissioner Atkins that expressed her concerns and opposition to restoring GA use. To her credit, the director of policy almost immediately forwarded me the superintendent's letter for review, along with the statement, “ASLD certainly appreciates your efforts on behalf of the APA; however, with existing restrictions and potential for increased incursions or diminishing availability for NPS to facilitate emergency medical services, firefighting and law enforcement – authorizing GA use would be in conflict with the existing ASLD SLUP.” This SLUP, or Special Land Use Permit, is in essence a non exclusive lease the land department has entered into with the National Park Service (NPS) on a renewing basis since about 2008. The first SLUP was signed only shortly after the land department abruptly ended its work with the APA and RAF to lease the airstrip. Does this sound a little strange? APA leadership at the time had been negotiating and jumping through various hoops to acquire a lease on Tuweep for about 3 years, spending several thousand dollars in this process, with the RAF even funding a phase I cultural study that concluded that the airstrip should remain open! Suddenly, the land department pulled the plug and less than 6 months later entered into a SLUP with the NPS for use of the airstrip! Don’t get upset with the park service as their preference has always been that GA have access, thus keeping the airstrip in good condition for their use as well.

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Interestingly and thankfully, the park service actually continued to support GA’s efforts to regain access to the Tuweep airstrip for non commercial recreational use, and even participated in conference calls between us and the land department from 2011 to 2015, or so. This, along with a 70+ year history of safe joint use with the park service from 1942 until Tuweep’s closure in 2005, makes this new letter of concerns and opposition a curious thing. I believe that with a little conversation the park service would continue it’s decades long support of GA’s access to Tuweep. To these ends, and in respect to the new superintendent, I penned a multi page and detailed response to the superintendents concerns and sent this to the land commissioner, along with a request to meet with her and the superintendent. Sadly, after several weeks, I have learned that it has yet to be shared with the park superintendent. Meanwhile, several federal legislators have taken interest in the potential that federal land managers are now being relied upon to limit access to state trust lands, and have asked me to keep them informed.

Is there a friendly solution to this that would avoid a legal battle? Yes, I believe there is one last potential solution:, the original solution in fact.

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In the end, ASLD and the Land Commissioner have one primary constitutional mandate, the management of state trust lands to the highest and best use. This use is nearly always, barring some extraordinary circumstance, measured in dollars and cents to the trust and its beneficiaries, in this case the public schools. In other words, if it could be shown that private non-commercial GA access to the Tuweep parcel would provide greater income to the trust than the current SLUP with the park service, ASLD would be obliged to consider it very seriously. We have long argued to ASLD that the current recreational permit system, the one that affords access to state trust lands for every other type of recreation and transportation to and from recreational activities on trust lands, is the current and proper system to allow access to Tuweep once again. Under this system the state enjoys immunity from liability under our state’s Recreational Use Statute, a law that was actually amended, in collaboration with ASLD in 2011, to add both OHV and aircraft operations. To require a lease instead of the simply recreational permit would in fact undermine this immunity and force what the courts have called an indelegable duty of care upon the state. Ironically, ASLD continues to allow thousands of OHV’s, automobiles, horses, and bicycles under this same permit system and protection each and every year, accessing hundreds of miles of roads and trails.

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ASLD’s decade plus of opposition is almost mind boggling when one considers that Tuweep is basically an open field with a dirt road less than one mile long, what we call an airstrip, down its center, but I digress. To support our position that non-commercial aviation access to Tuweep for recreational purposes, we intend to prove that the current system of recreational permits would provide income to the trust that substantially outperforms the current position of ASLD this being the current SLUP with the park service at $2,400 per year. To these ends, The APA , Pilot Getaways Magazine, and the RAF worked together to generate an online survey and presentation to pilots gauging their support and willingness to purchase either the individual or family recreational permit from ASLD for $15 or $20, respectively. The results are very encouraging, especially when we consider that only a fraction of the pilot community was reached.

Tuweep Survey Summary

This survey was distributed to membership of members of the Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Idaho pilots associations in February 2017. We received 1571 responses to the survey and the resulting commitments to purchasing the state’s recreational permit totaled $28,500. These funds would flow to the trust via individual and family permits in exchange for restoring aviation’s historical access to the site in the first year, and commitments for this amount would be reduced by 13% in the years after, based on the survey. The survey questions and resulting percentages are as follows:

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In our minds, the numbers above make it clear that the highest and best use of the Tuweep airstrip is indeed private, non commercial general aviation access. The aviation communities commitment is clear, and we believe the follow through on permit purchases would be swift, and in the end, ASLD would wonder why they opposed such a common sense approach for so long. Our proposed solution, along with the data above was sent to the commissioner on March 7th and we will ask for a response within 30 days. If it’s a yes, we will immediately reach out to the NPS to develop a plan to mitigate their concerns. Shortly thereafter we’d reach out to those who made their commitment through the survey asking them to follow through in their purchase of the state’s recreational permit on line at ASLD’s web site

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With this struggle starting in 2005 under Arv Schultz, Mark Hawkins, and Paul Pitkin no one will say the aviation community has not been patient in this struggle, but when your behavior does not bring the results you desire, it may be time to consider new behavior. Unfortunately, this may mean that ,what we have always held as a last resort, that being one form or another of a legal challenge to the state, may be our only option to bring an end to what is in essence discrimination against aviators as a class of citizen.

I must end this on a positive note, however, as I do remain hopeful that the current commissioner will recognize that the simple and existing recreational permit system is indeed the commons sense solution, but if not, I am comfortable that we will have exhausted all possible remedies short of the governor’s intervention, which I do not expect. Either way, stay tuned for news on Tuweep as we intend this year to be the year we finally restore our long standing and historic access at this site.

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