Aspen-area airspace plays bigger role in Air Force plan
September 17, 2011
ASPEN – The U.S. Air Force wants to establish a low-altitude training zone that would enable it to fly regular sorties in wilderness and backcountry areas south of Aspen.
The proposed Low Altitude Tactical Navigation Area covers 60,699 square miles of western Colorado and northern New Mexico. The southern two-thirds of Pitkin County is within the proposed area, according to a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) from Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.
The Air Force has scheduled numerous community forums to discuss its plan, including one tentatively set for 6-9 p.m. Monday, Oct. 10, at a location to be determined in Aspen. The public has until Nov. 5 to comment on the draft EA.
The concept has been a topic for discussion for about the last year, but the Air Force altered it in a major way this month. The military took Colorado’s Eastern Plains out of the proposed fly zone, in large part because of objections by cattle ranchers. That means more flights over western Colorado.
The Air Force wants to train in mountainous terrain that “would provide realistic training to special operations aircrews preparing for worldwide deployment,” it said on the Cannon Air Force Base website.
The proposed boundary incorporates a large potion of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.
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The 27th Special Operations Wing (SOW) would conduct flights in the MC-130J and CV-22 special operations aircraft. The MC-130J is a huge airplane that often flies clandestine or low-visibility missions to refuel other special operations aircraft, the Air Force website says. The CV-22 Osprey is a twin-engine, tilt-rotor aircraft capable of vertical takeoff, hovering and vertical landing like a helicopter as well as the long-range, quick flights of a turboprop aircraft. Its terrain-following radar allows it to fly at low altitude, according to the Air Force.
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 EA said there could be operations over the forests and grasslands of western Colorado on weeknights. That raises the prospect of a backpacker camping in the trees along West Maroon Creek on a star-filled, soundless night when suddenly an Osprey materializes out of nowhere and screams down the valley.
“Low-level training would average [three] sorties per day, or 688 annually, although specific areas could be overflown more or less frequently,” the EA said. “The suddenness and unpredictability of infrequent overflights during scheduled training could be seen as an impact to local land uses by some persons. The 27 SOW would work with managing agencies to identify and avoid especially sensitive locations.”
The study notes that skiing, horseback riding, fishing, hunting, hiking and climbing typically occur in the “remote landscapes” that dominate the proposed training area. “Sudden and intense noise could result in disruptions to the expected dominant land use,” the EA said, adding that the training flights will be infrequent in any one given area and that the impacts will be temporary.
“These events are not expected to change visitor habits or recreation land uses overall, but such intermittent overflight could be annoying to some residents and visitors,” the EA said.
Deer and elk are likely to have a “startle reaction” when flights go over their habitat, the study said. But since there will be three flights per day spread randomly throughout the vast training area, it is unlikely that individual animals will be subject to consistent high levels of noise, the EA concluded.
The flights would avoid the areas with the highest human populations as much as possible: “Noise from the proposed action would be expected to result in infrequent annoyance and very infrequent interference with activities such as conversation and sleeping,” the study said.
The Air Force study contends that the risk of the aircraft triggering avalanches during winter is “not significant.”
The town of Telluride has already raised concerns about the low-altitude training area, according to media reports. City of Aspen spokeswoman Mitzi Rapkin said she wasn’t aware of a city staffer working on the issue, but she was checking with the community development department.
Pitkin County turned in preliminary comments during an earlier public outreach effort connected to the EA. Now it will likely craft comments on the draft EA, said Cindy Houben, director of the Community Development Department.
Cannon Air Force Base has a web page devoted to issues surrounding the low-altitude training proposal at http://www.cannon.af.mil/library/environment.asp. Click on the link for “Cannon Draft Environmental Documents” for the full EA.
Send comments on the proposal to 27SOW Public Affairs, Attn. LATA Comments, 110 E. Sextant Ave., Suite 1150, Cannon AFB, NM 88103, or email 27SOW.PA.NEPA@cannon.af.mil.