Air Force places training on hold | AspenTimes.com

Air Force places training on hold

ASPEN – Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico announced this week that it has shelved a study of low-altitude training over an area of western Colorado that includes Pitkin County.

Cannon released a statement that said it is evaluating whether a more detailed environmental analysis of its training proposal is necessary after receiving public comments from 1,600 people and organizations and because training requirements are changing.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall interpreted the Air Force’s comments to mean the plan to fly low-altitude training flights is delayed “indefinitely,” according to a statement the senator released Wednesday. Udall spokesman Mike Saccone said the office’s military liaison was told the Air Force is “setting aside the plan.”

The Air Force was working on a Draft Environmental Assessment analyzing the potential impacts of the training over 60,699 square miles that include the central mountains of Colorado, southern Colorado and the Four Corners area. The southern two-thirds of Pitkin County is within the proposed area, including a large portion of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

The military wants to undertake mountain training with the MC-130J and the CV-22 Osprey. About 40 percent of the flights would be between 500 and 999 feet above ground level. Another 50 percent would be between 1,000 and 3,000 feet above ground level, according to the Air Force proposal.

The plan drew sharp criticism from conservationists and some residents who felt the use of the airspace in western Colorado and New Mexico for low-altitude training would be too disruptive.

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Udall’s understanding is the environmental study performed thus far will be dropped altogether or incorporated into a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement, according to Saccone. The statement from Cannon Air Force Base said the decision on how to proceed will be made in “early 2013.”

“The Air Force remains committed to being good stewards of the environment and good neighbors, which includes utilizing the National Environmental Policy Act analysis process to make well-informed decisions,” the Air Force said.

Udall wants to ensure that the Air Force has “more of a dialog” with affected citizens if planning eventually advances.

“I want to ensure that pilots and crews receive the training they need to perform their combat missions, but this training plan needed to be better coordinated with local communities and other airspace users,” Udall said in a statement. “I appreciate the Air Force’s decision to not move forward at this time with its Low Altitude Tactical Navigation training based on the feedback it received from community members in southern Colorado, the central mountains and the Four Corners region. We need to make sure that the Air Force’s training plans are crafted in consultation with the military in Colorado and the communities they would affect.”

scondon@aspentimes.com