Backcountry Airport: Taylor Wilderness Research Station Airstrip
The Taylor Wilderness Research Station airstrip is located in the heart of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho. Resting on the south bank of Big Creek at the base of a steep valley flanked by cloud-shrouded peaks, the airstrip is approximately one-half mile of grass running between Rush Creek and Pioneer Creek with a small bend in the middle known as a “dog leg.” This airstrip is one of a small handful located in the Frank Church Wilderness.
Jess and Dorothy Taylor owned and operated a hunting outfit from the ranch before the University of Idaho purchased the property in 1969. Taylor began constructing the Taylor Ranch airstrip May 1948. “Most people don’t realize the amount of work that went into building the airstrip,” Taylor stated in a 1974 interview. The tract of land was once “solid timber and brush.” In an oral history, Taylor stated that when he conceived of building an airstrip he had “no particular instruction on building it.” Construction began with clearing thick brush, followed by the trees. Taylor used dynamite or a team of 1800-pound geldings to remove the remaining stumps. Taylor finished preparing the airstrip using a flip scraper and walking plow. The entire construction of the airstrip took approximately one year.
The Taylors decided to build an airstrip to bring in customers for the hunting outfit which they planned to operate on the property. When they purchased the property in 1935 air travel was not practical. When the couple moved to Taylor Ranch to live year-round in 1948, backcountry air travel had become feasible. While running the hunting outfit from the property (as had the previous owner, David Lewis), the couple realized that if they were able to develop an airstrip then they could improve their business. Their property was located in prime hunting country, with many opportunities to hunt bighorn sheep, elk, and deer. The addition of the airstrip made the ranch more accessible, turning it into an even more attractive hunting destination.
Taylor Ranch sat deep within the Idaho Primitive Area, which eventually became part of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in 1980. The Wilderness Act of 1964 provided for the use of aircraft in designated wilderness areas where aircraft use had been previously established, subject to regulation by the Secretary of Agriculture. This provision has become a point of contention among wilderness activists. The Central Idaho Wilderness Act, which designated the River of No Return Wilderness, also permitted motorized use and access “where previously established.” The Taylor airstrip, established before the passing of these acts, was covered by these provisions. Today, the airstrip is classified as private, meaning that a pilot must receive permission to land at the site. The University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources owns the ranch, now known as the Taylor Wilderness Research Station (TWRS), and permits the landing of TWRS users and authorized guests who are transported by local aviation companies. Backpackers, hunters, and other recreationists may fly out of TWRS only in the case of a medical emergency. The Taylor Wilderness Research Station airstrip has had many uses throughout its history. Originally built to offer hunting access for the Taylor hunting outfit, the airstrip is now primarily used by students, professors, and field scientists.