Conservationists take stand on Air Force training proposal
November 3, 2011
ASPEN – A leading environmental group in the Roaring Fork Valley is trying to rally its members to demand that the U.S. Air Force alter plans for low-altitude military training flights over the wildlands of western Colorado.
Wilderness Workshop sent a blast email to members this week, urging them to submit public comments on the proposal by Friday’s deadline. The Air Force prepared a Draft Environmental Assessment that proposes an official federal government “Finding of No Significant Impact.” That would allow the Air Force to start operations sooner. Wilderness Workshop is one of many conservation and citizens groups that are demanding a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement on the proposal.
“While we understand the need for military training, the proposal needs a much more thorough environmental review before it should be considered for approval,” Wilderness Workshop wrote to members.
In the email, Wilderness Workshop Conservation Advocate Will Roush wrote that the Air Force’s Environmental Assessment contains a “particularly telling example of how little thought and analysis has gone into the proposal” by evaluating the impacts of low-level flights on polar bears and reindeer, but not on the black bears, bighorn sheep or elk found in Colorado’s mountains.
The Air Force proposed the Low Altitude Tactical Navigation Area over 60,699 square miles of western Colorado and northern New Mexico. The southern two-thirds of Pitkin County is within the area. Much of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness also is within the proposed boundary.
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.
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The 27th Special Operations Wing would conduct flights in the MC-130J and CV-22 aircraft. The training would average three sorties per day, or 688 annually.
About 50 percent of the training flights would be at altitudes from 1,000 to 3,000 feet above ground. 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.
Roush said Wilderness Workshop is concerned about the potential impacts on wildlife, as identified by state wildlife officers. They want a ban on flying over bighorn sheep winter habitat and lambing grounds in the Crystal Valley. The population there is struggling to maintain viability.
Conservationists are also concerned about the effects of the flights on deer and elk during winters when the animals are dealing with harsh conditions. “They are running away from airplanes rather than spending their energy finding food,” he said.
Wilderness Workshop prepared a letter that it wants its members to endorse and send to the Air Force. That letter asks that the low-altitude military flights stay at least 2,000 feet above designated wilderness and other sensitive public lands, as is the broader policy of the Department of Defense. In a perfect world, the flights would avoid such areas altogether, Roush said. The experience on the Hidden Gems Wilderness Proposal shows that public lands involved with military training operations will not be designated as wilderness by the federal government, even if otherwise eligible, Roush said.
The Pitkin County commissioners sent a letter to the Air Force this week stating that they found the Draft Environmental Assessment “fundamentally flawed” in its evaluation of effects on the economy, wildlife and public lands. They asked for an EIS.
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 assessment.
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.