The Air Force's decision Oct. 6 to back off on building a new bombing range in the Owyhee canyonlands is a victory - and therefore shocking.
Who would have thought
that a coalition of local and national environmentalists, hunting
groups and a few members of Congress could stop the military and
Idaho's forceful Gov. Cecil Andrus?
this informal coalition enjoyed clinking glasses to their momentary
success. "We toasted in hopes that we had driven the pointy end of
the spear through this proposal," said Bob Stevens, a Ketchum
bighorn sheep hunter and former military pilot, who flew many
opinion-makers over the remote canyon. "The problem has always been
location, location, location."
A look back at
this long-debated project suggests that Andrus may indeed have
doomed it by choosing the most environmentally sensitive area in
Owyhee County, trying to pull an end-run on Congress and pledging
Idaho's support without asking the people first.
It was in 1991 that Gov. Cecil Andrus proposed the 25,000-acre
Idaho Training Range in an attempt to save Mountain Home Air Force
Base from falling onto the list of bases facing
Almost immediately critics said he had
picked the worst possible location for a split range: one on the
north side of the Owyhee River canyon, one on the south. With the
existing 100,000-acre Saylor Creek range, Air Force jets would have
had more than 3 million acres in which to train.
Shoshone-Paiute Indians protested, saying it would jeopardize
sacred sites. Environmentalists opposed noisy flights over
steep-walled canyons; they said the nation's largest herd of
California bighorn sheep, antelope fawning areas and sage grouse
were threatened by jets flying 100 feet above the ground, dropping
flares and bundles of shredded aluminum.
Air Force held public hearings on the project, it became clear that
a majority of Idahoans polled opposed the range, sometimes by a
margin of 10 to 1. Only the residents of Mountain Home, a community
whose economy is almost completely dependent on the base, supported
Although Andrus seemed angry and
surprised at the Air Force's decision, the facts show he shouldn't
* The Air Force and Andrus refused to
consider other sites for the range, and federal law requires
alternatives to be considered. If the Air Force had not withdrawn
its current proposal, opponents might have sued and
* It was inevitable that Congress would try
to block the Air Force and Andrus from creating a state-owned
range. The Engle Act requires congressional approval before more
than 5,000 acres of federal lands are withdrawn from the public
domain for military use.
Most important of all,
say some opponents, the Owyhee Canyonlands Coalition worked
overtime to nationalize the issue. Coalition members made multiple
trips to Washington, D.C., to show members of Congress a video of
the gorgeous canyons and wildlife values at stake. Volunteer pilots
such as Stevens flew people over the canyonlands to bring the issue
The Center for Defense Information
produced a 30-minute TV program on the range proposal, quoting Air
Force officials saying the range was not critical to the future of
Mountain Home AFB.
CNN-TV's "Network Earth" did
two reports on the proposal, including a recent program that
featured former Bureau of Land Management Director Jim Baca. Baca
blamed Andrus for creating pressure to remove him from the Interior
Department after Baca visited Idaho and expressed misgivings about
Baca said Andrus was "out of control"
in pursuing the project. "He's wielded his power improperly. He has
hurt me personally, he's hurt a lot of other people in the Interior
Department, and he's done something that's wrong. He ought to back
off. He really ought to."
To which Andrus
replied, "The Clinton White House is on the verge of being taken
over by the Green Machine." Afterwards, Andrus fired off a letter
to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and complained of being treated
"shabbily" by Baca.
It was Andrus' involvement
in Baca's ouster that helped nationalize the issue, says Craig
Gehrke, regional director of The Wilderness Society. "Once we
mentioned Baca, Andrus and the bombing range in the Owyhees,
congressional folks knew exactly what we were talking about."
Opponents also spotlighted the issue by paying
for national television ads narrated by Sun Valley part-time
residents and celebrities Mariel Hemingway and Scott Glenn. They
took out a full-page ad in The New York Times headlined: U.S.
BOMBERS STRIKE IDAHO. Your Last Chance to Keep "The Quietest Place
in America" From Becoming a War Zone.
September, 30 members of Congress - 28 Democrats and two
Republicans - wrote the chairman of the House Defense
Appropriations Committee expressing their concerns. Twenty-three
members of Congress sent a letter to President Clinton, asking him
to put the project on hold.
Finally, Air Force
Secretary Sheila Widnall made the difficult decision to start over.
A day later, a federal court judge in Boise ruled that an Air Force
environmental impact statement completed in 1992 was flawed. The
judge ruled that Andrus and the Air Force were trying to separate
two actions that were inextricably linked: bringing a composite
wing to the base and developing a new range. The judge ordered the
Air Force to write a new environmental impact statement. The ruling
pushed the Air Force back to square one.
perplexing is why Andrus selected the site in the first place. He
has always responded by saying there's nothing mysterious about it.
He wanted to keep Mountain Home Air Force Base alive; a new range
was the best way to do that.
All of this seemed
an odd way for Andrus to act near the end of his fourth term in
office. The senior governor in the United States, he was admired
for his feistiness on other environmental issues, yet on this one
spouting a line of jobs above all.
For once, it
didn't work. Even so, it becomes part of the Andrus
For those who fought the bomb-training
range since 1988, the hard-earned victory is sweet. As retired
pilot Herb Meyr of Mountain Home puts it: "It's unbelievable what
you have to go through to do the right thing. I could see why most
people would give up."
The Idaho Conservation
League's Brian Goller said people didn't give up "because of the
magic of the Owyhees." Although the Air Force tried to paint the
place as just rocks and sagebrush suitable for bombing practice,
Goller said people who saw videos of it or visited were moved: They
wanted to save it. n
Stuebner writes frequently for High Country News from Boise,