TRI-COUNTY REGION – The US Air Force has extended the period for public input regarding its intent to prepare an Environmental Assessment for a proposed Low Altitude Tactical Navigation training area over northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Deadline for comment is Nov. 15.
The LATN project would be based at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. It proposes mostly after-dusk training flights on C-130 and CV-22 Osprey aircrafts in “high mountainous terrain” in all weather, training which, according to the Air Force is “required for successful operations in ongoing global conflicts.”
All of Montrose, San Miguel and Ouray counties are contained within the boundaries of the LATN proposal.
The Air Force maintains that the new LATN is necessary because the existing military training routes controlled by the 27th Special Operations Wing at Cannon AFB are “generally narrow corridors over flat terrain designed for use by F-16 aircraft previously flown from Cannon AFB.” Those routes “do not provide the access to aircrew training opportunities over high mountainous terrain needed to represent current real world taskings.”
Board of Ouray County Commissioners Discusses Need for Comment
The Board of Ouray County Commissioners, at its Monday meeting, discussed the need for official comment on the proposed LATN. Commission Chair Lynn Padgett encouraged fellow commissioners Heidi Albritton and Keith Meinert to consider drafting a letter to the Air Force regarding the training overflights.
Padgett referenced a letter written by the Ridgway-Ouray Community Council asking for clarification on a number of questions. Should Ouray County join San Miguel and San Juan counties, Padgett asked, in sending a formal letter as part of the scoping process?
The questions she particularly wanted addressed included a spate of unknowns: Are the aircraft going to be carrying weapons? What is the county’s responsibility should one go down? What about wildfire? Avalanches? What mitigation, if any, is being considered regarding impacts on wildlife? What about the noise?
According to ROCC’s Vice President Randy Parker, that group, while acknowledging the need for training, also had questions about flights over wilderness areas and proposed wilderness areas, such as the San Juan Mountains Wilderness.
Parker told The Watch his group was also concerned about bald eagle migration in November and elk calving in the spring. What about communication with, and advanced notification for, local search-and-rescue aircraft? The military planes are not supposed to overfly congested areas, Parker said. But how, exactly, do they define “congested?”
“Should we ask the Air Force,” Padgett queried the board, “to scope certain information into their EA?”
The BOCC took no action at its Monday meeting.
Padgett said there was information about the proposal on her website: lynnpadgettforouraycounty.blogspot.com.
‘Alternative 1’ Would Move Airspace Boundaries
A second, somewhat smaller area referred to as “Alternative 1,” is also being considered. It would move the northern boundary of the airspace slightly south, closer to Grand Junction, and the western border to the east, to exclude the western one-third or so of San Miguel and Montrose counties, while continuing to incorporate all of Ouray County.
“This would reduce the area being affected by random low level flights. However, the disadvantages include reduction in the available training area which increases the likelihood that crews would fly the same route multiple times and that inclement weather would preclude training opportunities,” an Air Force fact sheet explained.
Training would consist of approximately three flights per 24-hour period, or approximately 688 flights annually, at altitudes ranging between 200 and 3,000 feet above ground level and airspeeds at or below 250 knots. The majority of flights would take place after dusk, with 95 percent of flights taking place Monday through Friday.
Federal Aviation Administration and Air Force regulations require aircraft utilizing the LATN area to avoid airfields, towns, noise-sensitive areas and wilderness areas by prescribed distances, and aircrews are prohibited from flying over the same point more than once per day for all other areas within the LATN.
But, as the Telluride Town Council observed in a comment letter sent to the Cannon AFB Public Affairs Office last week, signed by Mayor Stu Fraser, “The Town also has concerns for the safety of our regional residents and visitors where LATN operations – should they result in an unfortunate accident – might place our regional residents and visitors at risk.”
Although worded slightly stronger than the draft letter initially prepared for council review, the final version did not voice outright opposition to the LATN at this early stage in the review process, as at least one Telluride councilmember would have preferred.
“It will have a deleterious effect on tourism, psyches and real estate values,” said Thom Carnevale, later adding, “I would want to emphasize again that I think we should come out in opposition to this program; not just for ourselves, but for the ranchers, the wildlife…”
While refraining from taking such a position immediately, the majority of council appeared to be in favor of officially opposing the LATN at a future point should it appear poised to become reality.
San Miguel County Commissioners voiced similar concerns in a late-September letter to the public affairs office, stating that “the possibly severe adverse impacts that…[the activities]…could have on the county’s several thousand residents, as well as tens of thousands of annual visitors that are attracted to the county’s various recreational amenities located on both public and private lands, including a major ski resort and congressional designated wilderness area.”
– Reporting for this story by Peter Shelton and Karen James
Mail comments to: Cannon AFB Public Affairs Office, 110 E Sextant Ave, Suite 1150, Cannon AFB. NM 88103 or email HYPERLINK "mailto:27SOWpublicaffairs@cannon.af.mil" 27SOWpublicaffairs@cannon.af.mil by November 15. For more information, visit www.cannon.af.mil.