Bruce L. Nurse got madder than a wounded grizzly when federal environmental officials refused to let tourist-laden commercial jets land at the town's lone airport here, so last month he struck back -- and started a private jet airline of his own.
The move has Interior Department officials fuming. By a quirk, the municipal airport is just inside spectacular Grand Teton National Park -- the only commercial field to be located on federal parkland. But all sides concede that the operations is perfectly legal.
The showdown over the airport caps a decade of bitter legal wrangling that has involved five separate federal agencies and such widely disparate elements as the Rockefeller family, President-elect Ronald Reagan's nominee for Interior secretary and the mating habits of the western sage grouse.
Although government rules bar commercial jetliners from Grand Teton park, they don't prohibit charter flights or corporate jets. And Nurse, a local ski-resort operator, is chartering the very same Boeing 737 jets that the commercial carrier -- Frontier Airlines -- would have used.
Such Wild West bravado may bring chuckles from outsiders as a holdover from this sagebrush community's earlier days, but here in Jackson Hole most folks think Nurse's brash action is justified -- and they're not very amused about the situation.
"We don't want to be in the airline business," says Nurse, who insists the $350,000-a-season rump jet operation -- which requires a 12-member staff to handle everything from passenger ticketing to baggage-handling -- is almost more trouble than it's worth. But he says the gesture still is necessary to make the point.
Over the past 10 years, the dispute has produced a mountain of studies, 1,500 pages of Interior Department memoranda, at least two lengthy court battles and four separate -- and contradictory -- environmental impact stuides. Only the hapless sage grouse, a kind of western chicken, has remained unscathed.
To many observers, the case also has become a monument to the difficulty of resolving conflicts between economic and environmental issues. In a word, Jackson Hole's tourist-hungry business community wants air service here expanded. The government and environmentalists want it shut down eventually.
Both the park and the political activity surrounding it were a lot quieter before the early 1950s. The airport was a tiny mud landing-strip then, located outside Grand Teton's official boundaries, and air traffic there was negligible. Almost everyone who visited the park came here by car.
But in 1950, the government expanded the national park area to include the old airport, and the battle began. The Jackson Hole Airport Board, suddenly a tenant of the Interior Department was forced to apply for a long-term use permit. The renewed lease formally expires in 1995.
The latest series of clashes began in the early 1970s when the government refused to grant permission to extend the runway to accommodate small jets. The present 6,305-foot airstrip accepts Convair 580 turbo-props. Local officials had wanted to lengthen the field to 8,000 feet.
The size of the runway no longer is a problem because the newest-generation 737s can land on the shorter strip. But the government still is holding out against scheduled commercial jet service. And it won't let the town build a control tower or put up a new hangar on the existing field.
In the meantime, the flap has sputtered through a spate of noise-abatement tests and studies, a local master plan, a two-year regional Transportation Department study and high-powered public hearings during which comedian Arthur Godfrey landed in a 4-engine JetStar to testify for airport expansion.
There's also a court fight pending over who legally should control the Jackson Hole airport -- the local airport board or the Interior Department. The Federal Aviation Administration sides with the airport board, which has a use permit for its operations. But Interior insists it has final say as landlord.
The sage grouse became involved inadvertently when officials at first contended that lengthening the runway would disrupt the bird's delicate sex life. But observant locals showed the birds actually love the landing strip -- to use for spring courting dances -- so the issue was stillborn.
James G. Watt, the incoming Interior secretary, also had a brush with the controversy. In 1978, as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, he urged local expansionists to wait for completion of a new environmental inpact statement before taking other steps -- on grounds that they'd win on "the merits."
Nor has the Interior Department been a rock of consistency. Unitl 1973, the agency favored expansion of the airport, contending it was needed for better access to the park, and in 1972 shepherded through a $2.215 million appropriation for studies and minor improvements.
Then it abruptly reversed thrust and opposed any expansion. As late as August 1979, agency officials indicated they still viewed the airport board's 20-year lease as consistent with government goals. Two months later they declared the airport "incompatible" with proper use of the park.
Some here believe that Interior has exacerbated the dispute. Philip MacKay Hocker, a Jackson Hole architect who is Wyoming conservation chairman for the Sierra Club, complains the park service "has been so wishy-washy that each side has been encouraged to believe that if it really persisted it would prevail."
The latest opposition centers on the issue of higher noise levels from the jets and the question of how much longer the airport should remain in the park at all. Interior now wants it removed entirely by 1995. Officials argue that the more they allow expansion now, the harder it will be to dismantle the airport then.
The issue came to a head late last year when Frontier, which operates the commercial air service to the community, announced it will replace the current Convair 580s with 737s in 1981 -- and warned it may have to pull out of Jackson Hole entirely if the Interior Deprtment doesn't replent.
It was the threat of a Frontier pullout that sent Nurse into orbit. Chartering two 737s from Frontier each Saturday, he began once-a-week flights to Denver and Salt Lake City last Dec. 20. Meanwhile, Frontier is continuing its Convair 580 service.
There's considerable dispute about what allowing commercial jets into Jackson Hole -- and expanding the airport facilities -- will mean both to the community and the park either from the standpoint of the economy or the environment.
Frontier contends its aging 580s are becoming too expensive to maintain and that an all-jet fleet would be more economical and also allow for better coordination with airlinewide route patterns. The company now runs nine turbo-prop flights a day to Denver and Salt Lake City.
Nurse, who doubles as president of the local Chamber of Commerce, insists that continued air service is necessary to handle the expected flow of tourists in coming years. With gasoline prices soaring and auto sizes shrinking, fewer and fewer visitors will be coming by car, he submits.
Opponents of the airport expansion contend the area could be served as well from an existing -- and already jet-capable -- airport at Idaho Falls, but business leaders point out that involves a 90- to 105-mile bus ride through mountain passes and canyons -- which themselves often are blocked by snow.
Besides, they counter, Interior already allows private jets at Jackson Hole, including the noisy Gulfstream II. All sides agree that these executive jets constitute the biggest noise problem. Some even strafe the parkland.
Local officials argue that permitting larger-capacity jets -- the 737s can carry 100 passengers compared with 50 for the Convairs -- would require fewer flights, at least for the present. And construction of a control tower would enable them to keep private planes to a narrower path.
Millionaire industrialist Laurence Rockefeller also has gotten into the act: His Jackson Hole Preserve foundation, which looks after his nearby ranch and the land he donated to Grand Teton Park, is lobbying vigorously to move the airport to largely desolate Daniel, Wyo., some 65 miles south.
But locals crack sarcastically that Daniel is so inconvenient, "You'd have to fly there to catch your plane." The cost also is in dispute -- $9 million or $25 million? Terrain makes it impractical to build a new airport closer to Jackson Hole. And planes still would have to fly over the park.
Nurse and other local businessmen are particularly irked about Rockefeller's role. "The power being exerted by the Rockefellers is scary," Nurse asserts. "He got the FAA to go down to Daniel and do a formal survey on that site. Normally they only do that if the town asks for it."
It's difficult to get a handle on what the actual consequences of jet service here would be. Noise tests vary widely, according to which agency is conducting them. The latest -- a new FAA study -- says new-generation 737s wouldn't be significantly louder than the turbo-props. Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency disagree.
There's also some argument about the economic need for jet service. Last year only 46,212 of Jackson Hole's 3.9 million tourists came by air, and the figure has remained relatively constant despite a boom in ski-resort trade over the past few years.
Estimates of how much the community would suffer if direct air service were cut off also vary. Pessimists contend the Jackson Hole area would lose $14.8 million of its $90 million a year in tourist business and 633 of its 10,000 jobs. The optimists cite losses of between $2 million and $3 million and 80 to 120 jobs.
The real question to many onlookers is: Where will it all stop? The move to 737 jets may not seem that big a step to outsiders, but if officials approve that now, how do you guarantee that local businessmen won't be pushing for still more runaways and larger 727s 10 years from now?
"You don't," concedes Ross Porter, a former Navy supply officer who serves as the airport board's vice president. And Hocker points out that Nurse's Jackson Hole Ski Corp. already has plans to expand its current facilities at the base of the mountain range.
For the moment, the Jackson Hole airport controversy still is circling the field looking for a place to land. Interior issued new regulations in August that effectively would have barred Nurse's new charter jets, but a last-minute amendment by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) blocked the agency's move.
Both sides are waiting for the new Reagan administration -- and Watt -- to review the Interior Department's decisions. Almost everyone is looking for a rapid conclusion. But Hocker muses: "My own sense is that this issue in the end is not going to be resolved in Jackson Hole."
Meanwhile, Nurse intends to continue his own-man airline service through March 27, when the ski season here officially ends, and he's planning to resume it next winter -- Frontier and federal regulations permitting. Sage grouse or not, Nurse vows, "We'll do it if we have to -- year after year."