Most people know it as the Tuscola Area Airport, but for a select special few throughout the year – it’s a taxpayer-funded private hunting preserve, conveniently located just outside of Caro.
And during this first week of Michigan’s 2016 firearm deer season it’s been busy.
That’s because at least six hunters have taken advantage of the opportunity to get prime, private hunting real estate set within the airport’s 260 acres in exchange for volunteering with chores like clearing snow, painting or cutting the grass.
Chris McCollum, manager, Tuscola Area Airport – which is in Indianfields Township, three miles west of Caro – said he thought “it was kinda public knowledge” that anyone could take advantage of the program that rewards volunteers with an opportunity to submit a hunting application at the Tuscola Area Airport.
“I always thought it was kinda public knowledge because a few other people had asked about it in the past,” McCollum told The Advertiser. “It was never published or anything like that…it was a kind of word of mouth deal.”
McCollum explained how it’s decided who gets to hunt at the airport.
“Airport property it technically considered private land… the way we do it is people are allowed to hunt based off of volunteering.
“If you volunteer for us, then you have a right to submit a hunting application,” he said. “You choose whatever season – bow, gun, muzzleloader – whatever you want to do and then that would get approved by the board members and then you would have the right to hunt out there.
“So that’s how we operate with our hunting licenses,” McCollum said.
But before anyone starts hooking up their snowplow and heading to the Tuscola Area Airport at 1750 Speirs Drive in Indianfields Township, McCollum said it’s important to note only a very few get the privilege to hunt at the site.
Currently, only six people are approved by the board to hunt at the site, including two of the airport’s current four board members – former Caro Mayor Dick Pouliot and current Caro Mayor Joe Greene.
Though McCollum said the other four special hunters were approved by the airport board – which also includes Cass City Village Manager Pete Cristiano and Cass City Village President Carl Palmateer – he said he “wouldn’t feel comfortable” disclosing “the names of the private citizens that hunt back there.”
The Tuscola Area Airport is publicly owned and partially funded by taxes.
For the current fiscal year, Caro contributed about $14,000 and Cass City, about $7,300. The rest of the revenue for the airport comes from the state of Michigan and sales of fuel and hangar rentals, among other things.
The airport is the only general aviation airport located in Tuscola County and is owned and operated by the Tuscola Area Airport Authority.
The authority was incorporated in 1993 and originally included Caro, Cass City, Kingston, Almer Township, and Elkland Township.
Today, only Caro and Cass City are in the authority, which is why they are the only communities represented on the board.
According to a statement in its audit, the “Tuscola Area Airport Authority’s goal is to improve services to the flying public by increasing the economic development of the local communities in Tuscola County. The Authority is working toward increasing traffic into the airport and making improvement to its infrastructure as ways to reach this goal.”
There are 35 aircraft based at the airport. Activities that take place at the airport include corporate transportation, delivery of goods, emergency service and hospital activities, business and agricultural use by local companies, flight training, aircraft maintenance and repair, and recreational uses. The airport is used by representatives of Poet Biorefining in Caro, Walbro Engine Management in Cass City and others, including UPS, Michigan State Police and the University of Michigan Hospital.
It consists of about 260 acres and McCollum said “any part of the airport land could be used for (hunting) really.”
“It’s not like we have just designated acreage,” he said. “As long as it’s in a safe place, in a safe direction. You could probably pop a blind anywhere on the property as long as it isn’t on the runway, of course.”
In general, he said, hunters take an access road at the western part of the property where there isn’t a gate and drive straight back to the wooded area. Some hunters, however, access property on the other side of the airport.
Deer blinds are set up on airport property, he said, though McCollum said none are permanent and didn’t say exactly where they were located.
“Anyone that wants to help out, volunteer time at the airport, it’s based off of that obviously,” McCollum said. “It’s kinda first-come, first-serve.”
However, McCollum said “priority” is given to “a couple of guys that have been helping all along and are kinda always on call for us.”
McCollum said anyone interested must visit the airport office and sign a volunteer form.
“Then if we need help with something, you know, getting rid of snow, painting, maybe there’s just some general upkeep stuff,” he said. “Then if they help with that stuff, come hunting season, they can submit a hunting application which is separate from the volunteer form.”
The airport appears to be in need of more volunteers, too.
As The Advertiser reported in July, the Michigan Department of Transportation has downgraded the license of the Tuscola Area Airport, effectively cutting it off from state and federal funding and potentially costing taxpayers.
A representative from the Michigan Department of Transportation told The Advertiser the airport’s license has changed from “General Utility License” to “Basic Utility License,” following an April inspection.
The type of license generally refers to the aircraft landing zone, though the bigger impact to the public is that airports that carry a basic utility license are ineligible to receive state and federal funds.
The airport depends on such funds for much of its revenue and its five-year plan includes many much-needed upgrades.
Eric Engler — former airport manager who still rents hangar space there — said without government support, taxpayers would likely be asked to fund improvements at the airport or risk losing the local economic impact of the airport.
The Advertiser asked McCollum if he encourages others to take advantage of the opportunity to volunteer at the airport.
“I mean yeah, if they want to,” he said, adding that six is “probably the maximum we would want out there at any given time.”
“We don’t want 15 people out there hunting at the same time because that’s when we could start having issues with safety,” he said.
However, McCollum also said “there’s not a ton of work to be done at the airport.”
“So, you know, we couldn’t have 30 people volunteering because there just wouldn’t be enough stuff for everyone to do,” he said.
McCollum said the decision on granting permission for volunteers to hunt at the airport is “based on how many people already have been approved.”
“We normally give them designated spots,” McCollum said. “So that way everyone’s not stepping on top of one another.”
McCollum said it’s just one of the steps taken to avoid any hunting accidents.
“We’ve got four guys out there right now and they all know where each other hunt so they kinda make sure they face opposite direction of one another,” he said. “We’ve never had any real problem.”
He also said that the aircraft flying in and out of the airport is too far to affect or be effected by hunters.
Further, hunters must sign a waiver in case something happens at the airport while hunting.
Not everyone is convinced the hunting program is an appropriate use of the limited funds the airport to which it has access.
Engler – who still uses the airport regularly – said he sees grass being cut with equipment and fuel paid for by taxpayers to clear a path for deer.
“The airport’s not mowed but it is out there so they can see the deer – it has nothing to do with the airport itself, it’s just property they have,” he said. “Basically, they’re just cutting it for their own purposes.
“Just basically what everyone uses it for is their own hunting area,” Engler said.
Engler said when he was running the airport, he kept all of the grass completely cut.
With longer grass, he said, deer are actually attracted to the area – something he said he feels is done purposely to improve hunting.
“Somebody’s gonna get hurt out here,” he said.
Sgt. Joe Molnar, acting lieutenant of the Bay City Operations Service Center of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said “Airports are issued special permits to hunt or take deer that pose a safety risk to airplanes. Those would be year-round permits to take out deer that threaten aircraft.”
Molnar said he didn’t know if Tuscola Area Airport had such a permit and that it couldn’t be determined before press time, due to the DNR being in the midst of one of its busiest seasons. McCollum did not mention if Tuscola Area Airport has such a permit.
Molnar said permitted hunting like the kind at Tuscola Area Airport would be akin to crop damage permits issued to farmers whose crops are threatened by animals (though during an interview with The Advertiser, McCollum did not mention hunting is permitted to control population).
“What the DNR Wildlife Division would do is issue a permit stating they are allowed to take deer – sometimes they’ll establish time periods, they’ll establish what can be harvested, when it can be harvested to mitigate risks,” he said.
Molnar added that when such permits are issued, the governing entity must list all potential shooters.
“The airport supervisor would be the one to select who would them be listed under the permit,” he said.
Molnar urged anyone who suspects poaching or other illegal activity to call the state DNR’s poaching hotline at 800-292-7800.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at email@example.com