A January 2, 2024 US Forest Service news release commends its partnership with the RAF for the rehabilitation of Gila National Forest’s Sacaton Airstrip. RAF New Mexico Liaison Ron Keller organized volunteers for a series of work parties that resulted in reestablishment of the long-abandoned runway, and installation of a new vault toilet there, which also benefits Rain Creek Trail hikers.

Gila National Forest Supervisor Camille Howes is quoted as saying, “The Recreational Aviation Foundation has been a wonderful partner that is helping to improve and maintain backcountry airstrips across the Gila National Forest. Without their volunteers’ commitment and enthusiasm, Sacaton Airstrip would still be but a memory. This partnership helps secure the future of recreational aviation access on the Gila National Forest.”

Beginning in 2010 with Negrito airstrip, RAF and New Mexico Pilots Association volunteers worked on improvements under the direction of then-Reserve District Ranger John Pierson. The New Mexico Airstrip Network was formed to coordinate interested parties and land managers, and annual work parties followed to install windsocks, clear rocks and brush, and improve fences. “Our goal is to maintain the Gila airstrips in good condition so that they may be used for fire suppression, emergency medical evacuation, as well as recreational access,” Keller said. “It was Larry Filener and Mark Spencer who originally joined the District Ranger at Sacaton to look it over. I give great credit to Larry and Mark who had the vision and wisdom to recognize its potential,” Keller added. 

The RAF and Gila National Forest entered into an agreement in September 2022 to maintain and improve all six of its backcountry airstrips. In addition to Sacaton, they are Beaverhead, Jewett Mesa, Me-Own, Negrito, and Rainy Mesa. RAF volunteers were consulted to help prepare operational standards and a joint operation, maintenance, and inspection plan to ensure ongoing maintenance for these Gila airstrips. The RAF had been successful getting the Forest Service to allocate funds for backcountry airstrips, amounting to $750,000 annually. In 2023, the Southwestern Region received $161,731 for the RAF/Gila cost share challenge, in which the RAF participates by providing services.

“The process leading to this success really is a template for further projects. We look forward to partnering with the Forest Service to bring more improvements in the name of respectful and safe aviation access,” RAF Chairman John McKenna said.

The Forest Service acknowledges that backcountry airstrips are an important part of the administrative and recreational infrastructure, providing low impact access to national forests. Sacaton is marked “Private” on charts, so pilots should call Gila Dispatch at 800-538-1644 for permission to land, and current airstrip conditions. See its Airfield Guide listing here.

Submitted on January 12, 2024
by Carmine Mowbray

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