U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan took aim and fired at some fast-moving targets in Borderland Monday.
Before air and rail transportation took his attention, the congressman stared down the barrel of a 12-gauge shotgun, aiming at clay targets with members of International Falls School Trap Team.
On the first go-round of shooting, Nolan sheepishly apologized after taking one more than the allotted one shot at the flying target. He told the trap shooters not to not make him look too bad, as he’s been busy in Washington D.C. and hasn’t had much time for shooting.
Eric Norstad, head coach of the team, said the experience “meant a lot to the kids.”
“They look up to the politicians from the area, and I know some of the kids were proud to be shooting with him,” he said. “It’s important for us to let him know how much he impacts things up here. It was good to have him there and say thank you.”
Later, after bragging about the talents of the school’s trap club, Nolan hosted a forum with state and local officials about the importance of air and rail service to the Borderland community.
Nolan is a member of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation Subcommittee and is looking at funding through the Federal Aviation Administration re-authorization bill. Essential air service provides financial assistance to 8th District regional airports in International Falls, Brainerd, Hibbing, as well as airports in Bemidji and Thief River Falls.
“I have to support essential air services or I wouldn’t be able to go to a family gathering,” Nolan said with a laugh. “I’m going to work my tail off to make sure we get re-authorization of this program…I’m hopeful we will do a re-authorization…The main reason I’m here is to get the best ideas I can and get a better idea of what’s working, what’s not and how we can make things better.”
Local officials made it clear that for the Falls International Airport key to the phrase essential air service is the word essential. Without EAS, there is a fear that commercial airlines will relocate to higher-revenue producing markets.
Bob Anderson, mayor of International Falls and chairman of the local airport commission, said a group of lawmakers looking to eliminate essential air service program may not realize the harm eliminating the program could bring to small, rural communities like International Falls.
“If it’s the subsidy they’re concerned about…I certainly agree with them,” he said. “We don’t like being on subsidy either.”
Anderson said the local airport commission makes it a priority to become subsidy free.
“We spend about $25,000 a year on marketing making sure everyone in the region understands we have air service here,” he said. “We want to build that air service up.”
For more than 30 years, the EAS was a safety net, Anderson said. But when considering transportation in other, larger cities, several million dollars are being pumped into the services.
“I wonder when these folks in Congress are trying to eliminate essential air service, what they’re really after?” he said. “If they don’t think its in the public interest to have air service…I need to understand why…It’s key to people in many communities to keep air service viable.”
Boise Paper, a Packaging Corporation of America company – Borderland’s largest employer – counts on the local airport for its continued success.
“To say that air service is important to our business is a gross understatement,” said Lori Lyman, Boise’s public affairs manager. “We rely on the service to cover three important areas that are critical to our business – customer service, technical response time and recruitment.”
Lyman said the company has steep competition and would be put at a disadvantage if it couldn’t respond in the quick manner it does by use of the airport. “We have a first-class operation here,” she said.
Cassandra Isakson, director of Minnesota Department of Transportation Aeronautics, said the airport doesn’t only give Minnesotans access to the rest of the world, it gives the rest of the world access to Minnesota.
“Those dollars spent on aviation really do continue to multiply at the community level,” she said.
Like air service, rail transportation also has a large presence in the Borderland community. The crossing in Ranier, operated by Canadian National Railway, is the busiest in the U.S., Nolan said.
“About 18 percent of all goods that (are brought by railroad) into this country come through this crossing,” he said.
Still, the crossing is a nuisance to many people in the community. Several times, trains block the crossings at Spruce Street in Ranier and County Road 24, also known as the Van Lynn Road, east of International Falls.
“We’ve lost four (Ranier) businesses,” said Koochiching County Commissioner Wade Pavleck. “Is it all the train? No. But when you’re stuck…People have a tendency to go somewhere else or do something else.”
Pavleck also said he and other officials have acknowledged concerns that if there was a chemical spill or derailment, the community is not prepared to handle that kind of emergency situation.
“Consideration should be given to create a local chemical assessment team,” he said, “and provide them with the necessary equipment they need.”
Mike Tamilia, Canadian National manager of operations, said there are a lot of issues and problems on the table, and while the company has made many improvements, solutions cannot be reached overnight.
“The important thing is to separate the issue and understand a proper solution,” he said. “We have over 20,000 miles of track…We have to maintain all that.”
Tamilia, however, told officials he heard their concerns and would continue to make necessary improvements to maintain a positive relationship between the community and the company to continue the success of both.