Officials in charge of a Duluth airport have to decide how many old trees to sacrifice in a biologically valuable forest for the sake of safety.
The trees are crowding the airspace for a small city airport on Duluth's Park Point. There are alternatives that could spare most of the trees, but the leading options are costly, and still don't please everyone
Duluth's Sky Harbor airport provides a single runway for small airplanes, and facilities for float planes, just within sight of the city's downtown. It's at the far end of Park Point; a natural sand bar that juts across the entrance to the Duluth Superior harbor. The airport's been there since 1939; but some of the trees were already very old back then.
John Hippchen, a consultant for the Duluth Airport Authority, said a state inspection found that a lot of the trees would have to go because there's a risk planes would crash into them.
"Over the years, trees have grown in the approaches to the airport, and on the inspections that MnDot has done they've discovered that trees had grown up directly on the approach to the runway," Hippchen said.
Younger trees in the approach path caught the inspectors' attention, but that led to an additional problem.
"When they started looking at the approaches to the runway it was discovered that there were some other trees, some of the old trees that needed to be cleared per the MnDot requirements," Hippchen said.
The older trees were beside the runway and flight path. The trees aren't just old; they're in a biologically unique and legally protected forest. Plans to cut down 500 or more trees caused a public outcry two years ago.
“Over the years, trees have grown in the approaches to the airport.”John Hippchen
In 2007, the FAA funded a study to find a compromise that would keep airplanes safe and spare as many trees as possible.
At this point there are two leading alternatives. Each shortens the runway, pulling it away from the forest, but in different ways. One changes the direction of the runway a few degrees; the other pulls the runway closer to downtown Duluth. One plan would take193 trees; the other would take 43.
Either way it still rankles Christine Penney, who heads the city's tree commission. The problem isn't trees, she said, the problem is the airport.
"I'd like to see it moved, myself," Penney said. "I think it's ugly. I think it's an eyesore. I'd like to see it moved someplace where it doesn't impact the natural area [and] where it doesn't impact the residents."
The old trees live in a lake-cooled climate on a sand bar with plants including a rare species of fern. Tree commission member Ethan Perry said some of the trees have been here since before settlement times.
"I don't remember exactly how old, but there are trees up at least in the range of 250 years old here," Perry said. "It's a forest of all different age pines, which is unusual in the state."
Perry said this is not place to be cutting trees.
"In terms of forest, in Duluth in particular, this is as prime as it gets," he said.
The plan that would take the most trees also pushes the runway closer to the point's residential area. But Park Point resident Scott Wolff said noise is already a huge issue. As if on cue, he was quickly drowned out by a passing helicopter.
"That is precisely why I can't have a conversation with friends on the telephone or over at my house without being interrupted by noise like that," Wolff said. "If that runway is closer to my house, how much louder is it going to be."
To Wolff, the answer is simple. Don't move the runway. Don't cut the trees.
"I'd be in favor of the status quo," he said. "Why don't we just get along like we have for the last 25 years, and call it a day?"
Tree Commission member Jim Larson isn't thrilled with either of the leading plans, but he said he is encouraged that they've greatly reduced the number of trees likely to lost.
"Yeah, it's looking a lot better, so, we still need to talk and kind of develop our opinions in terms of what we have right now, but alternative 13 looks fairly promising," Larson said. "But, we have to see."
An environmental assessment of the two alternatives will take until early next year. The Duluth Airport Authority will make the final call, late next spring or summer. Then they just have to figure out how to pay for the plan, which could cost between $4 million and $5.5 million dollars.