Husband and wife Poll Hereford cattle breeders from the Capertee Valley have been granted a three-year licence at the Katoomba Airfield at Medlow Bath and are in the process of revitalising it, in a bid to secure a long-term commercial lease over the airfield.
Derek and Floyd Larsen were granted the licence in February for the dirt airstrip about three kilometres east of Medlow Bath, after expressions of interest were opened by the NSW Department of Industry (Crown Land and Water) in September 2017.
The licence was issued despite a historically expressed view by Blue Mountains City Council and the National Parks and Wildlife Service that Katoomba Airfield should be reinstated within Blue Mountains National Park.
Katoomba Airfield’s usage reduced substantially in 2016 after its long-term lessee, flying instructor Rod Hay, was killed in a single engine plane crash in nearby scrub at the airfield.
NSW Rural Fire Service Blue Mountains district manager Superintendent David Jones supports the couple’s efforts and has been to the airfield to discuss their future plans, one of which ensures the airport is handed over to emergency services in bushfires. The airstrip has been used regularly by giant Skycrane helicopters for bushfire-fighting duties.
“Both Floyd and Derek have a big community focus and an appreciation of the issues for increasing traffic in and out of the airport and the impacts on local communities. They are sensitive to the local environment and acknowledge the uniqueness of the area,” Supt Jones said.
“They have significant plans to improve the facility and I believe that this will assist us in the future.”
But the 800-member strong Blue Mountains Conservation Society is concerned by the decision and has asked the Department of Lands for more details about the future of Katoomba Airfield on Grand Canyon Road.
“Whilst the Society recognises the value of Katoomba Airfield for emergency uses, we are concerned about the environmental impacts of its operation,” Society president Madi Maclean said.
“A new lease arrangement with an aero club or other private operator is unlikely to keep operations to a minimum and will not adequately safeguard the threatened ecological community on-site nor the likely presence of endangered species.”
“Other concerns include soil erosion, groundwater contamination from chemicals and fuel stored on site and weed invasion. Depending on the frequency, duration and intensity of air operations proposed by the new licensees, there are also likely to be noise impacts as well as loss of amenity and privacy for local residents. This not only includes residents in Medlow Bath immediately adjacent to the airfield, but residents in the Upper Mountains if the new commercial licensees are proposing activities such as joy flights”.
The Larsens would not reveal details in their business plan or how long they are seeking a lease, but they did admit “high end heli-tours to Mudgee, Rylstone, Orange and other wineries and tourism venues” were part of the tourism proposal in their plans.
They are presenting to council at the end of this month, together with a representative from the Department of Crown Lands, and hope to have fixed wing aircraft landing at the airfield within two years.
The airport is currently only open to helicopters for safety reasons because of the degraded state of the runway.
Ms Maclean said previous lease operators did not adequately manage the site to prevent soil erosion and sediment movement, groundwater contamination or weed invasion and previous government assessments had consistently recommended it be added to the Blue Mountains National Park and only used for emergencies.
Department of Lands spokesman Mark Maloney told the Conservation Society in a letter that the Larsens licence was “terminable at will, and represents an interim tenure while conditions of a future lease are under negotiation”.
But he also assured the Society that since February, the Larsens had worked hard to rehabilitate the area removing obsolete and dilapidated structures, a high volume of abandoned waste materials, chemicals, asbestos, dilapidated buildings and equipment.
“Their activities have focused on minimising erosion and vehicular disturbance to vegetation and soil, and bolstering site access controls to prevent illegal access. The appearance and condition of the site has been substantially improved.”
The Larsens, reside in Blackheath and were repairing a wind sock when the Gazette visited, said they had spent “many thousands” on early remediation of the site and were clearing it up in stages. Fixing up the runway with a proposal to bid new hangars – subject to council approval – hopefully enabling the community the use of one or both of the existing hangers are in their plans.
“We have a commitment to ensure Katoomba Airfield becomes a long term strategic asset for the benefit of the whole Greater Blue Mountains community, emergency services, tourism, employment and local business under the proviso of delivering a net environmental gain. We love it here, why would we damage it.”
Mrs Larsen, who has a background in philanthropy as CEO of Cure Cancer Australia, said they hoped to open the airfield for charity days and extend the current bivouac usage to more schools and groups from the Blue Mountains.
Mr Larsen, a private helicopter pilot, has worked as a general manager with Local Land Services, and coupled with their farming work, have shown a proven track record in environmental management and rehabilitation.
Both are members of the RFS and have also “held senior roles in private and public sector organisations with strong corporate governance protocols”.
They hope to close the smaller runway (due to its historical lack of use and safety concerns with power lines at one end and return more of the land to natural bushland.
The Department said they expected to receive a business plan from the licensees within a matter of weeks that sets out the scope of future activities it proposes to conduct on the site.
Mr Maloney said they had consulted both National Parks and Blue Mountains Council during the Expressions of Interest campaign in 2017 “and neither agency expressed its opposition ...or raised objections to the outcome”.
A community engagement program is being planned before a lease is granted.
Earlier this year Councillor Don McGregor said it was “the only possible landing field in what is a decidedly inhospitable 45 nautical mile sector”.