Pitkin County: Training flights need more study | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County: Training flights need more study

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Courtesy Cannon Air Force BaseNighttime training flights with the MC-130J airplane (top) and CV-22 Osprey are proposed over an area that includes the mountains surrounding Aspen.

ASPEN – Pitkin County officials aren’t saying “no” to low-altitude training flights by the U.S. Air Force over the Aspen area, but they will ask for a more in-depth analysis of potential impacts than has been done to date.

County commissioners on Tuesday reviewed a draft letter – the county’s comments on a draft Environmental Assessment for the training – and agreed it must stress the need for a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, to analyze the proposal. The less-thorough Environmental Assessment that has been done is inadequate on various fronts, commissioners agreed.

“I think it’s imperative that we ask for an EIS,” Commissioner Michael Owsley said.

Representatives of Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico were in Aspen early this month to describe the plan for training flights over northeastern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado and to accept comments on the draft Environmental Assessment. Written comments are due Nov. 5.

Commissioner Rob Ittner urged his colleagues to decide whether, first and foremost, they want to see the county withdrawn from the proposed Low Altitude Tactical Navigation Area. Commissioners agreed that they will press for an EIS first before asking that the county be carved out of the training area.

“I think by asking for an EIS, we’re suggesting these potential impacts aren’t great or can be mitigated … they have to meet a higher standard of investigation,” Owsley said. “I’d be willing to consider flights if they answer those questions.”

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Among the environmental assessment’s flaws, commissioners noted, is its conclusion that 10 percent of Pitkin County’s economy is dependent upon tourism and recreation.

The figure is “unequivocally wrong,” Commissioner Jack Hatfield said, and Commissioner Rachel Richards guessed the number is closer to 100 percent.

“We have a tourist-based economy. That’s all it is,” Owsley said.

An Aspen Skiing Co. presentation to commissioners earlier in the day, which noted the increasing resort competition that Aspen/Snowmass faces, weighed on Richards. The ski resorts along Interstate 70 in Colorado, including Vail, aren’t within the training area boundary, she noted.

And, Richards questioned the Air Force’s position that no route would see more than one flight per night.

“That is far too frequent,” she said. “There’s no comfort in the fact that it’s only once a day.”

The county’s letter also reiterates Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s position that the assessment on impacts to wildlife is inadequate, addressing polar bears, bison, caribou and reindeer, but not the large mammals found locally, including elk, mule deer and black bears.

“As if this was Norway,” Hatfield said.

Citizens may also comment in writing to the Environmental Assessment 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.

The 27th Special Operations Wing, operating out of Cannon Air Force Base, 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. Aspen is near the northern boundary of the proposed training area.

janet@aspentimes.com