Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

When housing rates in Sonoma County became unaffordable, Bridget Kurz began researching places in Del Norte County, where her boyfriend has fished from commercially for years.

She stumbled upon Valhalla Apartments in Gasquet and thought: "This is beautiful; this is where I want to live," Kurz recalled thinking during her first visit.

Now she's not so sure.

"I don't know if I want to live here if the trees are cut down."

Hundreds of trees that according to regulations are too close to Ward Field, the small-aircraft airport in Gasquet, are scheduled to be cut down or topped, with work expected to begin in March.

Kurz and dozens of other Gasquet residents, including some pilots who say the airport is safe to use as it is, are protesting the tree removal, but local airport officials say that the obstruction clearing is simply a necessary measure to bring the airport into compliance with regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration.

"If trees cut into the airspace, then they have to be removed," said Susan Daugherty, program manager for the Border Coast Regional Airport Authority, which manages Ward Field.

The airport authority is holding a community meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Gasquet Mountain School to answer any remaining questions and to point out which trees need to be removed or topped.

More than 20 Gasquet residents hoping to keep the trees held a meeting last week where they recognized that the local county and airport authority officials are not to blame since they're just following orders from state and federal governments. But the Gasquet residents wondered why the airport was deemed out-of-compliance now when in 2002 the residents remembered being granted an exception to the FAA regulations.

Daugherty said she has heard of the "exception" made in 2002, but it was something "I never saw writing," she said.Daugherty said that any trees that were saved during that last round of clearing could have simply been from lack of funding.

"My understanding is that there wasn't a complete survey done and due to the limit of the funds there was not as much (vegetation) taken down as there could have been," she said, adding that this time there has been a complete survey done on the entire airspace.

'Perfectly safe airport'

Dick Davis has been using the airport in Gasquet for decades, logging hundreds of landings and takeoffs, both for recreation and also for his business of surveying and aerial mapping, which declined dramatically with decreased logging and improved satellite imaging.

From his house in Gasquet he can see parts of the airstrip and one of its orange windsocks.

"I don't see the benefit of cutting those trees, from a pilot perspective," Davis said. "I don't know any pilot that complains about the trees in Gasquet. It's just something you have at a mountain utility airport like this."

Davis sympathizes with his neighbors who do not want their trees removed, but he would hate to see the airport closed. He appreciates the benefits of having it, not only for his own interests, but also for emergencies, like the predicted Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, forest fires, and anything else that could leave Gasquet cut off from highway access.

From his home, Davis also sees how the airport benefits businesses like FedEx, which he said uses Ward Field when Crescent City is fogged in.

"In my opinion, it's a perfectly safe airport," Davis said.

In the past 25 years, there have been three accidents at Ward Field, including one with serious injuries, but no fatalities, according to the database of the Air Safety Institute, which collects information on pilot accidents.The database shows that the accidents with injuries were a result of pilot error, although a 1988 accident report indicates that a pilot collided with trees in the approach area after he was blinded by "intense sun glare." The pilot diverted to Medford without incident.

Some residents argue that the trees could actually protect the homes adjacent to Ward Field.

"It's not only a sound barrier, but if a plane crashes, the trees would help stop a plane from hitting the apartments," Kurz said.

At least one pilot, Davis, agrees: "It's better to run into a tree than a house."

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