MOUNTAIN GREEN — The US Forest Service regional helicopter base for wildfire attacks will remain at Mountain Green for three more years, but the long-term home of the operation remains undetermined.
The agency’s Ogden District Ranger proposed last year to build a new base on 9 acres of Forest Service land in Huntsville, but the plan was withdrawn after strong protests over noise, stored fuel and environmental concerns were tabled during the public consultation process.
At the time, the Forest Service said moving the base from its home to Morgan County Airport was necessary because its rental options were running out.
But the Morgan County Commission on February 15 this year approved a three-year extension to the lease, which would have expired at the end of the month.
“The Forest Service is researching other potential locations,” Commissioner Robert McConnell said during the commission’s meeting that evening. “This process is taking them longer than expected.”
He said rental income is important to the county, so it makes sense to extend the lease.
Commissioner Mike Newton made a red carpet offer to the Forest Service. “We love having you here and we would love for you to stay here in Morgan County,” Newton told Mike Krupski, a Forest Service representative at the meeting.
“Let us know how we can help make this happen in the long term,” Newton said. “There are many, many advantages to having the helipad here.”
David Whittekiend, supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch Cache National Forest, said Thursday that officials have determined that it is no longer possible to find property to build a base, given the limited federal funds allocated to the project in 2021 and soaring real estate prices.
In the long term, such a base would be cheaper, but now the agency will lease, either from Morgan or from another airport along the Wasatch front, Whittekiend said. “Once we open it, there will be a lot of competition for that lease,” he said.
A long-term location will be identified before Morgan’s new lease expires, he said.
Plans for the base in Huntsville called for facilities to support four firefighting helicopters, although no more than three would be on site at any one time, and several days just one. The base would average one takeoff per day during the firefighting season.
The infrastructure would include three helipads, operations and warehouse buildings, vehicle parking and a fuel containment area, according to Forest Service documents. The base would accommodate 33 firefighters, four pilots and up to 14 contract employees.
Until a permanent home is acquired, the helicopter operation will be maintained at a local airport “at great expense to the agency, with facilities not designed for the operation and with logistical challenges”, according to planning documents.
Before making the Huntsville proposal, the Forest Service wanted to set up the base at Ogden-Hinckley Airport, but that fell through during negotiations with Ogden City, the documents show.
The existing base is the only one of its kind in Utah, according to the Forest Service, an increasingly vital base as more homes are built near forest land and wildfire seasons in West become longer and more intense.
Efforts to contact McConnell, the Morgan commission’s airport specialist, were not immediately successful.