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A military proposal to use more public lands riles locals in Washington

Residents worry about helicopters landing regularly near trails, campgrounds and wildlife.


Washington’s Methow Valley, located in the North Cascades, is often described as Seattle’s backyard playground. Here, rugged rock and ice ridgelines in the west shadow desert shrub-steppe in the east. “City folk call our area iconic,” says Lorah Super, an outfitter who has lived in the Methow for 15 years, wrangling horses and serving as camp cook in the backcountry. Over the years, the area has faced its fair share of hardship; last year, the Carlton Complex Fire swept through parts of the valley, burning away half of the houses in Super’s drainage. And now there’s a new threat to residents here and the recreationists who visit: military encroachment.  

Washington Pass in Methow Valley
Flickr user Adrienne Adams

proposal released by the Joint Base Lewis-McChord, located about 250 miles southwest, outlines a permit application for a mountain helicopter training area in the Methow Valley. The off-base training area would be available for use day and night, 365 days a year and allow for up to 75 landings per month at seven proposed helicopter landing zones. Such training, the proposal reads, would make pilots proficient at things like pinnacle and ridgeline operations and climb-out maneuvers, at reduced costs, given shorter flight time from the base compared to training facilities in Colorado. But Methow Valley residents, like Super, say such training would have dire consequences for those who live and play in the valley. 

“Most of our clients come from the city,” Super says. “I can just imagine how disappointed they’d be if they got (to the backcountry), bed down for the night and all of a sudden helicopters touch down. You might as well camp next to Harborview hospital in Seattle.”

In the scoping document, the base justifies the landing zones—which don’t include any new infrastructure—as “vital” to national defense. “This training is critical to save the lives of aviators and the Soldiers they transport,” the document reads. Combat operations in the mountains of Afghanistan led the US armed forces to prioritize the development of standardized high altitude training.

But the Methow’s residents aren’t convinced such training operations outweigh the safety and peace of the valley. After all, the military has been conducting similar training at the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Gypsum, Colorado, since the 1980s. Though the site is susceptible to scheduling conflicts and has higher associated travel costs, residents believe it's still more feasible. 

One of the proposed landing sites is located within the borders of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, violating the 1964 Wilderness Act, which prohibits motor vehicles, including the landing of aircraft. Portions of Henry M. Jackson, Glacier Peak and Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness also appear to be included within the training area, according to an interagency letter of response. As if that weren’t enough, opponents say, the majority of the seven sites are located either on top of or near hiking trails and campgrounds, including one less than two miles from the Pacific Crest Trail.

Shoni Pilip-Florea, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest region, says the agency has since revised their permit application to exclude the landing zone in Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

But wilderness and recreation organizations also raised other concerns: over the potential impacts on wildlife (the mountain training area is located within the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Area); the risk of triggering avalanches; and the possibility of wildfire ignition from crashes. In the last five years, crashes have occurred at both Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, and in Colorado.

“It’s rather unprecedented in terms of scale,” says Ben Greuel, Washington state program director for The Wilderness Society. Although a proposal for a new electronic warfare range is currently being considered on the Olympic Peninsula, it’s unheard of, he says, to have such a high number of military landings on public lands.

According to the base, the proposed action would mitigate for adverse effects to the natural environment, through rehabilitation and restoration projects, and by replacing or substituting resources.

While some have questioned the need for such expansion given reduced military action abroad, Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, offers a simple explanation: With the military downsizing and no longer fighting wars, bases are going to have to prove their worth in other ways.

“One of the best ways to compete is to say, ‘Look at all the amenities we have — like high elevation helicopter training,’ ” Stahl says. “That way, when the budgets happen, they’re not cut.”

In order to get approval for such a project, the base, under the Department of the Army, will first need to complete an environmental assessment, by the end of the year. The base will then apply to the Forest Service for a special use permit. It’s unclear how that will play out.

Although a master agreement between the Department of Defense and the Department of Agriculture allows for military use of national forest land, provided there are no suitable alternatives and an environmental analysis is conducted, according to Stahl, there is no official legislation authorizing such use. The only precedent for such a thing was set during World War II, when training was established at Camp Hale in White River National Forest in Colorado to prepare soldiers for the Italian Alps during a time of crisis.

And while there are some military training areas on national forest land in the United States, most were authorized under specific legislation by Congress — not by a general military use permit from the Forest Service. Still, Stahl fears it won’t take much for the mountain training area to be approved. “I don’t think anything is bringing this to a halt quickly, short of public outcry.”

Gloria Dickie is an editorial intern at High Country News.