Aspen airs concerns over military training flights
October 11, 2011
ASPEN – Just how low a military aircraft could fly over the wilderness surrounding Aspen was a key concern Monday as locals peppered U.S. Air Force representatives with questions at a community forum at Aspen High School.
About 25 people, many with government or conservation group ties, attended the forum, where the Air Force was seeking comment on a draft Environmental Assessment of its proposed Low Altitude Tactical Navigation Area. It covers about 60,000 square miles of northeastern New Mexico and southwest Colorado. Aspen is near the area’s northern boundary, but that doesn’t mean the local mountains wouldn’t see as many training flights as points farther south, one Air Force representative said.
The 27th Special Operations Wing, operating out of Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, has proposed training flights in the MC-130J airplane and CV-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft capable of operating like a helicopter and flying like a turboprop airplane.
“Not in my wilderness,” said one of the few private citizens who chose to offer formal comments Monday.
The goal is low-altitude training in mountainous terrain, with 95 percent of the flights occurring at night, said Col. Larry Munz, commander of the Special Operations Wing, or SOW, at Cannon. No route would be flown more than once per night, and there would be no more than three flights per night, or 688 annually, he said. Flights would take place Monday through Friday.
The aircraft would fly with lights on and use regular communication channels, like any other airplane, he said.
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“The crews need to train as they would be expected to fly, worldwide,” Munz said.
About 50 percent of the training flights would be at altitudes from 1,000 to 3,000 feet above ground level. Another 40 percent would be between 500 and 999 feet. The remainder would be at 300 to 500 feet above ground level. Flights would stay at least three miles away from airports, including Aspen’s.
The time an aircraft might actually be 300 feet above the ground could be brief, according to Munz – as a plane crests a ridge or mountain pass, for example.
Low-level flights over the wilderness, however, raised a host of concerns, ranging from heightened avalanche danger and wildfire risk in the event of a crash, to impacts on wildlife, the public’s wilderness experience and the area’s recreation-based economy.
Pitkin County Commissioners Rachel Richards and Jack Hatfield both suggested a demonstration of the aircraft.
“We have not heard any demonstration of the noise of these aircraft,” Richards said.
“Let’s hear the impacts. They might not be as bad as we think,” Hatfield added.
The draft Environmental Assessment, or EA, does not limit the SOW’s ability to fly over wilderness areas, according to Munz. A restriction on how low over wilderness crews can fly, if there is to be one, will come out of the EA comment and review process, he said.
“We’re not going to be placing our low-level flights right through the heart of wilderness. We know it’s a touchy subject,” said Steve Coffin, a former navigator and civilian member of the Air Force contingent.
Sloan Shoemaker, director of the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, questioned how the proposed flights would affect potential wilderness areas, suggesting future protections could be jeopardized once the Low Altitude Tactical Navigation Area is established. The Environmental Assessment needs to accommodate possible new wilderness areas, national parks, wild and scenic rivers, and other designations, he said.
Hawk Greenway, a pilot and manager of the Braun backcountry ski hut system, as well as a Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board member, questioned the impact of the flights on people. The huts, on the edge of wilderness, see use by people seeking a backcountry experience, he said.
“I can’t quite imagine how they would react … when these aircraft go overhead. I don’t think they’d be pleased at all,” Greenway said, urging a 2,000-foot minimum for flights over wilderness areas.
Kevin Wright, local wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, expressed concern about the flights’ impact on local bighorn sheep populations that are already distressed, as well as on deer and elk. They could also have the effect of driving black bears out of the backcountry and into urban areas, he suggested.
Wright urged the Air Force to consider seasonal restrictions and consult maps that define critical wildlife areas. “You could consider that in your flights and try to avoid these areas,” he said.
Parks and Wildlife will submit formal, written comments to the EA, Wright said, and Pitkin County intends to do so, as well. So does Wilderness Workshop.
“I really look at this draft EA as a starting point,” Hatfield said. “It’s clearly not the end of the story.”
Citizens may also comment in writing to the EA through Nov. 5. Go to http://www.cannon.af.mil/library/environment.asp for more information, and click on “Cannon Draft Environmental Documents” for the draft Environmental Assessment.