Kelly Braun, manager of the Canyonlands Field Airport, stands next to a nine-seat Quest Kodiak used by Red Tail Aviation. Braun said that as a public airport, Canyonlands Field cannot discriminate who uses the airport. [Kristin Millis / Moab Sun News]

Canyonlands Field Airport manager Kelly Braun presented a counter space lease agreement to the Grand County Council at their Tuesday, June 4 meeting. The agenda item sparked citizen comment and a lengthy discussion regarding helicopter tours.

Pinnacle Helicopters, based out of Las Vegas, Nev., plans to offer helicopter tours in the area. The company wants to rent 71.25 square feet of counter space within the airport for operations on a month-to-month lease for $326.41 a month. The lease was reviewed by the county attorney and was submitted to the council with a recommendation for approval from the Airport Board.

Citizens expressed opposition to having helicopter tours operate from the airport.

Wendy Hoff submitted an email before the June 4 meeting for the council to read.

“I am vehemently opposed to allowing Pinnacle Helicopters to operate tours out of Canyonlands Field,” Hoff wrote. “We all know how loud and distracting helicopters are. The positive experiences of residents and tourists, hikers and bikers, will be ruined.”

Kiley Miller spoke to the council and asked for them to block a business license.

“Please don’t allow this,” she said.

However, Braun said that the council had no authority to block or limit the helicopter operation.

“We can’t as a community decide what aeronautical activity we allow,” Braun said. “If we do it can affect funding.”

Canyonlands Field Airport receives money from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“We sign a grant assurance statement every time we receive money from the FAA,” Braun said. “There is language in the grant agreement stating that we won’t discriminate any recognized aeronautical activity. If we discriminate one over another, we risk having that federal money going away.”

The amount varies from year to year, Braun said.

Canyonlands Field receives $150,000 in FAA entitelements each year, and may receive additional FAA funds depending on project priority and scope.

In 2011 Canyonlands Field received $910,643 from the FAA for aircraft rescue firefighting equipment, truck and building. In 2012 it received $450,000 for paving the entrance road, ramp access and parking lot lighting.

“If we reach 10,000 enplanements (people who board aircraft at the airport), the entitlement goes to $1 million per year,” Braun said.

Canyonlands Field Airport had 9081 enplanements in 2011. According to an unofficial count for 2012, the airport had 9036.

Braun said that the county has no jurisdiction once an aircraft leaves the ground.

“We have no authority of what happens in the airspace. The only authority that can regulate that is the FAA, that’s the Feds,” Braun said.

Councilman Lynn Jackson said he was having a hard time separating the counter top lease with the operation.

“I would like to learn more about the operation,” Jackson said.

Ben Black, general manager of Pinnacle Helicopters, answered the council’s questions.

He said that he intends to conduct tours in the desert west of the airport in an area that is already heavily impacted by Jeeps, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), utility-terrain vehicles (UTVs) and motorcycles. Pinnacle can take-off and land only at Canyonlands Field, and can only fly within a 25-mile radius of the airport, according to FAA.

“We’re not going to fly over wilderness,” Black said. “We can’t fly over national parks. We have no desire to fly within the canyons.”

In his letter of intent to the county, Black wrote that the company initially intends to serve the tour market and then branch out to be a full helicopter service operation to include government contracts and natural resource agency operations.

Black said that they don’t want to make anyone mad.

“We just want to do a decent helicopter tour,” Black said.

Braun said that Black is willing to work with the community.

“He is very aware of the delicate nature of the area,” Braun said.

Black met Jennifer Jones from the Bureau of Land Management Moab Field Office in January. She said that they pulled out maps and talked at length. They discussed concerns regarding sensitive areas, such as where bighorn sheep may be lambing, high recreational areas and the river corridor.

“They’ve been receptive to our management concerns and have been willing to listen,” Jones said. “He seemed receptive, very much so.”

Jones said that there are already helicopter tours being done in the area from Gateway Canyons Resort in Gateway, Colo.

“They have a route that encompasses part of Fisher Towers and Westwater Canyon. Occasionally we get complaints,” Jones said. “They typically fly 500 feet above ground level. They don’t have to fly that high.”

Braun said that because the airport is 18 miles out of town, people are unaware of how busy it is.

“If people knew the activity we have out here, they would be shocked. We have helicopter traffic almost daily,” Braun said. “It hasn’t been an issue. I don’t think it will be an issue with Pinnacle either. It’s just in the spotlight and it is getting some attention.”

The council voted 6-1 to approve the counter top lease at Canyonlands Field Airport. Lynn Jackson abstained.

“We can’t deny someone’s rights based on ‘what if’,” said council chair Gene Ciarus.

Braun said that the lease is month-to-month because Pinnacle is still “testing the waters”.

“If they’re successful and they want to build their own hangar, that could happen,” Braun said. “That would also generate additional income for the county.”

Braun said that if there are abuses, it can be reported to the FAA’s Flight Safety District Office in Salt Lake.

However he recommended talking directly with the other party to work something out first.

“People are not out to be bad neighbors or jerks,” Braun said. “With a simple phone call it can be taken care of. It doesn’t have to go to a federal agency to conduct an investigation.”

We just want to do a decent helicopter tour.”