Idaho governor fights for a bombing range
Gov. Cecil D. Andrus,
protector of endangered salmon and enemy of nuclear waste, has
embarked on a quixotic crusade for a military bombing range in
Andrus, serving the last year
of his fourth term, says he must secure a new bombing range for the
Air Force, or Mountain Home Air Force Base will land on the
Pentagon's hit list.
The base injects about $1
billion a year into the Idaho economy, and it's the key employer in
the windswept town of Mountain Home, population 8,000. The base
houses one of the nation's only composite wings - a strategic mix
of about 60 fighters and bombers that train together in air-to-air
and air-to-ground combat exercises.
Mountain Home pilots have been training at a 100,000 acre
north-south bombing range for more than 30 years, military
officials say they need a new electronic range for the most
realistic training possible.
"It's crucial, it's
important, it's necessary," Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall told
a Boise newspaper during a recent visit.
Shoshone-Paiute Indians, whose sacred sites lie at the heart of the
proposed bombing range, have joined environmentalists, desert
hikers, backpackers, hunters and river rats in opposing the
military's plans in the Owyhee Mountains. At a recent hearing at
Boise State University, Shoshone-Paiute tribal chairman Lindsey
Manning said military planes are already shaking people's homes
with sonic booms.
But the governor is adamant.
"There is going to be an additional training range," Andrus said in
an interview. "If there isn't, four years from now Mountain Home
Air Force Base will be closed. That's just how sure I am about
Maybe so, but opponents note that Andrus
and the Air Force couldn't have picked a more sensitive spot.
"If they wanted to pick the
worst possible site, this is it," said Bob Stevens, a retired Navy
pilot who regularly ventures into the Owyhees to hunt chukar
partridge and bighorn sheep.
Shoshone-Paiutes' concerns, the little-known Owyhees feature a rare
treasure of vertical-walled river canyons, the nation's largest
population of California bighorn sheep, other wildlife such as sage
grouse, mule deer and pronghorn antelope, and extremely remote
The proposed Idaho Training Range
has been broken into two target areas - one on the north side of
the East Fork Owyhee River canyon and one on the south. The north
range, which includes Shoshone-Paiute sacred sites, lies on a
6,000-foot plateau in between Deep Creek canyon and Battle Creek
All three canyons are located on public
land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. All three are
rim-to-rim wilderness study areas and contain rivers that are
candidates for wild and scenic river status.
Although the two target areas comprise about 25,000 acres, the Air
Force and Idaho Air National Guard control the equivalent of 4
million acres of airspace over the whole expanse of southwest
Idaho, southeast Oregon and northwest Nevada.
That's what concerns people like Stevens and Shoshone-Paiute
Indians. Pilots can fly "on the deck" 100 feet above ground level
throughout the region. During composite wing exercises, pilots
would fly 160 sorties in a day, including an unknown number of
supersonic flights above 10,000 feet, and drop a variety of
practice bombs, laser-guided bombs, flares and chaff (reflective
bundles used to fool enemy pilots).
"If the Air Force gets this,
it would be one of the biggest, most massive training areas in the
western United States," Stevens said.
contends that environmentalists' concerns are overblown.
"There will be no live
ordnance (just practice bombs), no supersonic (below 10,000 feet),
no flying in the canyons ... I really don't see the danger," the
emotion that's built up on this is another matter. For some of
them, it's their private playground. I know a man who says, "Hey,
that's my place in the world that I think is special, and I don't
want anyone down there screwing it up."
"Well, what a selfish one-way
attitude ... the rest of us have got to eat."
At issue in public hearings during the week of Jan. 10-15 was a
draft environmental impact statement on the split range. A final
EIS is scheduled for release this summer.
even if the Air Force and BLM approve the split range concept,
Andrus faces a series of high hurdles to create a state-owned range
and he's running out of time:
* He must
negotiate a 20,000-acre land exchange with the BLM. To do so, the
BLM or the Idaho Lands Department would have to excavate or somehow
protect the more than 450 cultural sites identified by
archaeologists so far.
* The BLM is charged by
law with protecting the wilderness study areas and wildlife
habitat, and aircraft training could have an impact on that. "To
some people, a sonic boom over a wilderness area is no problem; to
someone else, it's a hell of an impact," said Idaho BLM Director
Delmar Vail. "Protection of wilderness values is one of the issues
that I've got to resolve."
* Andrus must obtain
$6.7 million from Congress to buy two private ranches consisting of
7,000 acres in the northern portion of the range proposal. That
could be a tough sell. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., nearly killed the
appropriations measure last year in order to protect the
Moreover, some members
of Congress were upset to learn that Andrus was trying to create a
state-owned training range in order to steer clear of a national
moratorium on public-land withdrawals for military training areas.
"We urged them to kill it
because it was premature to pay off landowners before the EIS had
been approved," said Brian Goller, an Idaho Conservation League
Environmentalists also wonder if
there's collusion with one landowner who is said to be a personal
friend of former Air Force Secretary Donald Rice.
* The Idaho Land Board would have to approve a
land exchange with the BLM. The board, charged with capturing the
maximum revenue possible for state land uses, could get saddled
with the cost of conducting archaeological surveys and excavations,
and other expenses. At least two members of the five-member board
have expressed misgivings about the project, including Attorney
General Larry Echohawk, a candidate to replace Andrus in 1995.
* The Foundation for North American Wild Sheep,
of which Stevens is a member, is dedicated to protecting the herd
of California bighorn sheep and tying up the project in the courts
for as long as necessary. The herd of 1,400 to 1,800 animals is the
only source of transplant stock in North America.
Boise attorney Murray Feldman says the legal
process for creating the state range has been flawed and the Air
Force "cooked the books' in the current draft EIS to downplay the
impact of the range.
Force has repeatedly lied and misled both the public and
responsible officials in other agencies regarding the purpose and
scope of the ITR proposal and its associated environmental
impacts," Feldman said in written testimony.
For instance, Alberta wildlife research biologist Valerius Geist
said the draft EIS understates the potential cumulative impact of
the training exercises on California bighorn sheep. "It's a lousy
piece of work," Geist said of the draft EIS.
predicted that if the range were approved, the California bighorns
would try to flee. "These are the real nervous nellies' of all
subspecies of bighorn sheep, he said.
disagreed, saying the bighorn sheep have become habituated to
aircraft overflights during the past 30 years. The governor
contends that if the state runs the range, it can adjust operations
In his final months in office,
Andrus said he remains committed to making the range a reality,
even if it means fighting environmental allies and potentially
tarnishing his legacy.
had to sit down and figure out what my legacy's going to be on this
issue, how history is going to treat me on every issue, I'd never
get anything done," he said. "I call each shot as I see it. And
when I make up my mind, I go full speed ahead."
writes frequently for High Country News from Boise,
Comments on the
bombing range plan can be sent by Feb. 9 to: Brenda Cook, Hk, HQ
ACC/CEVA, 129 Andrews St., Suite 102, Langley Air Force Base, VA
23655-2769. Gov. Cecil Andrus can be reached at the Idaho
Statehouse, Statehouse Mail, Boise, ID 83702. The Owyhee
Canyonlands Coalition, which opposes the plan, can be reached at
Box 653, Boise ID