A group of jumpers load their plane

A group of jumpers load their plane in West Yellowstone after preparing for a practice jump nearby in 2007.

Gazette Staff

BILLINGS (AP) — Arsenic-tainted water, sewage problems and old seasonal housing at West Yellowstone's 1960s-era smokejumper base have put the future of the Forest Service facility in question.

"In the past we've been able to Band-Aid things together, but we're beyond that now," said Marna Daley, public affairs officer for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, told The Billings Gazette (http://bit.ly/1NxUiR8).

So forest managers are lobbying their bosses at Region One and the national office for an estimated $5.2 million in funding to refurbish the airport tarmac, upgrade the sewer and water systems, buildings and the road to the facility two miles north of the community of West Yellowstone.

"The forest (service) is committed to keeping that resource in the Greater Yellowstone Area and on the east side of the (Continental) divide," said Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan, acting public affairs officer for the Custer Gallatin forest.

The base was carved out of the lodgepole pine forest just west of the Yellowstone National Park border in 1966 and has been in continuous use since 1972. In addition to the jump base headquarters, the site also provides a refueling site for firefighting tanker planes that drop retardant.

"It's a viable place to have a base," said retired smokejumper and jumper plane pilot Dick Hulla of Missoula, adding that the facility is centrally located next to a huge swath of forest that includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

The Custer Gallatin forest has asked for money in the past to update the smokejumper base — known as the Interagency Fire Control Center — but has been turned down. If that happens again, the base and its 32 seasonal employees may have to move. Possible options are to combine the West Yellowstone and Missoula smoke jumping forces, which would require enlarging the Missoula facility, or leasing a new building somewhere else.

"If they moved it to Bozeman it's just that much farther away," Hulla said.

The estimated startup costs to move the base elsewhere is about $1.5 million with an estimated annual lease of more than $240,000. To move the jumpers to Missoula would cost an estimated $3.9 million. One of the West Yellowstone base's advantages is that the Forest Service owns the land, so it wouldn't have to pay any lease fees, Daley said.

Further complicating the decision is the Forest Service's recent purchase of 15 1990s-era U.S. Army planes for firefighting. The C-23 Sherpa aircraft can be used for cargo as well as smoke jumping, but the planes don't operate efficiently at West Yellowstone's high altitude — about 6,650 feet above sea level.

West Yellowstone's base has leased a Dornier 228 high-performance plane since 2000, said Pete Lannan, base manager. Because of the C-23's limitations, on some warmer days the aircraft could only carry half of a typical load of smokejumpers — four as opposed to eight, Lannan said.

"It's not a huge factor but it's something we have to consider," he said, especially if the Forest Service decides to eliminate contract aircraft like West Yellowstone's.

The Sherpa C-23 is also slower than the Dornier 228, traveling at 140 knots compared to 200 knots, respectively, Hulla said. The Sherpas also have to slow down in turbulence, he added. Hulla has been an outspoken proponent of keeping a refurbished DC-3 aircraft in Missoula as a firefighting tool, saying it, too, outperforms the Sherpa.

Hulla said that it wouldn't make much sense for the Forest Service to upgrade the West Yellowstone base's facilities if the Sherpa C-23s are set to become the agency's new smokejumper planes.

"They just don't have the performance to operate out of West Yellowstone," he said.

He speculated the agency may be using the new airplanes as a roundabout way to reduce smokejumpers' numbers to save firefighting costs, or at a time when the agency seems to be using its elite firefighters less effectively.

Hulla said, in his opinion, the Forest Service is slow to dispatch smokejumpers when fires are first detected and while they are still small.

No one knows the economic impact the jump base has on the nearby town of West Yellowstone — which has a population of about 1,300 — although the community's chamber of commerce is reportedly calculating that figure.

But the financial and community considerations will not be overlooked in the Forest Service's deliberations, Leuschen-Lonergan said.

"We also have to take into consideration the social issues and local economy, some of the more intangible things we need to take into account," she said.

Leuschen-Lonergan added that the forest hopes to have a decision by this fall so the agency can move forward in whichever direction is deemed necessary.

"We need to address it," she said. "We can only put it off so long."

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Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com

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