Army: Hidden Gems proposal threatens key training
October 13, 2009
DENVER – Proposed wilderness designations for parts of the Colorado mountains could threaten the Army’s only high-altitude training site for helicopter pilots, an Army officer said Tuesday.
The proposed “Hidden Gems” wilderness designations would put all of the high-altitude landing zones used by the High-Altitude Army Aviation Training Site off-limits, said Col. Joel Best, senior aviation officer for the Colorado Army National Guard.
“We really can’t afford to lose any of that land for the security of this nation,” Best said. He spoke at a briefing for Colorado county commissioners and legislators.
The site, known by the acronym HAATS, is the only helicopter training site the U.S. where the terrain and conditions are similar to what pilots encounter in Afghanistan. It is operated by the Colorado Air National Guard and trains both active-duty and guard pilots as well as pilots from other countries.
The White River Wilderness Coalition is advocating for wilderness protection for what it calls the Hidden Gems, a collection of about 450,000 acres, or 700 square miles, in several parts of the Colorado mountains. HAATS uses some of that area.
One of the organizers of the wilderness campaign, Sloan Shoemaker, said the group understands the importance of the pilot training program and doesn’t want to shut it down.
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“The Hidden Gems campaign fully embraces and endorses HAATS,” said Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop, one of the coalition members.
Shoemaker said one area that the coalition included in its “long-term vision,” south of the existing Flat Tops Wilderness area near Glenwood Springs, is no longer on the table.
Best expressed concern that proposal could resurface later.
Shoemaker said his group plans to meet with Army officials Friday to discuss potential solutions. He declined to offer specifics but called them “practical and creative.”
Representatives of Democratic congressman Jared Polis, whose district includes some of the Hidden Gems areas, plan to attend the meeting.
Polis spokeswoman Lara Cottingham said the Hidden Gems proposal is in the very early stages, with no firm boundaries and no legislation put in writing.
The training site is about 30 miles west of Vail and 100 miles west of Denver.
About 500 Army pilots will train there this year, Best said. They learn how to deal with the limitations of flying in thin air, which saps helicopters of some of their engine power and affects handling.