WESTERN SLOPE – The U.S. Air Force announced its decision to “walk back” a proposal to create a vast training area for low-altitude flights over much of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
The Wednesday, June 6 announcement affects an area that includes Ouray, San Miguel and Montrose counties.
Local groups, including the Ridgway Ouray Community Council, the Ouray Board of County Commissioners, the San Miguel County Commissioners, and Sheep Mountain Alliance, questioned the plan, voicing some of the 1,600 public comments the Air Force received, most calling for a more thorough evaluation of the impacts through an Environmental Impact Statement.
Representatives from both ROCC and the Ouray BOCC asked the USAF to consider the impacts of the nighttime low-altitude flights on sensitive wildlife and wilderness areas, on tourism, ranching, avalanche potential, and on fire and emergency response capabilities, and called for a more thorough evaluation of the impacts through an EIS. Montrose County commissioners endorsed the Air Force proposal.
ROCC Treasurer Scott Williams said this week, “The members of ROCC will be pleased that [the Air Force] is not going forward with it, at least not without the essential studies.”
The plan would have allowed military aircraft, including cargo planes and the crash-plagued Osprey helicopter/airplane hybrid, to fly as low as 300 feet above the ground over a 60,700-square-mile area including the San Juan, Elk and Sawatch mountains. The plan would have allowed up to three training missions a night over the zone.
The Air Force is now officially “re-evaluating” the plan, according to 1st Lt. Stephanie Schonberger, a public affairs officer with Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the flights would be based. The Air Force wants to make sure the plan meets the military’s changing training needs, and that it is responsive to the concerns raised in the comments the proposal generated last fall, she said. The Air Force could come back with an amended proposal, a new environmental assessment, or begin a process for a more thorough EIS. But none of that would occur before 2013, Schonberger said. She added that all the comments received will be carried forward if the plan is revived.
A statement from Sen. Mark Udall’s office characterized the military’s move as an “indefinite delay.” “It’s our understanding that the Air Force is reassessing if they are going to come back with another plan at all,” said Udall spokesman Mike Saccone. Udall has been working on the issue since mid-2010, when the Air Force announced plans for the training area.
Udall’s statement came minutes after the Air Force sent out its announcement, saying, in part, “I appreciate the Air Force’s decision to not move forward at this time with its Low Altitude Tactical Navigation training based on the feedback it received from community members in southern Colorado, the central mountains and the Four Corners region. We need to make sure the Air Force’s training plans are crafted in consultation with the military in Colorado and the communities they would affect . . . I want to ensure that pilots and crews receive the training they need to perform their combat missions, but this training plan needed to be better coordinated with local communities and other airspace users.”
Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop was one of 17 Colorado environmental groups that sent a 30-page joint letter to the Air Force raising numerous issues with both the substance of the proposal and the process. The environmental assessment was short on the detail it provided on impacts, the range of aircraft that would be used, as well as the need for the new training area, according to the letter.
“Unlike most site-specific actions where significance depends mostly on effects to a localized and relatively small area, this proposal would affect a much broader set of interests,” the letter, dated Nov. 4, 2011, says. “Correspondingly, it will require a much more thorough analysis to determine the significance of potential impacts. That analysis must be undertaken in an [environmental impact statement].”
With 1,600 comments and a wide recognition that the low-altitude training plan had numerous unanswered questions, Wilderness Workshop conservation advocate Will Roush said Wednesday’s development was an example of the government’s public-input process working.
“We’re thrilled about that and thankful for the people who took the time to submit comments,” Roush said. If the plan is in fact not revived, “I think we are joining a number of other folks in being happy that we won’t have low-flying military jets flying over our heads.”