Military wants to grow its Western empire


Imagine a giant spider - a creepy crawler 10 times bigger than King Kong - that could spin a web across the West's great open spaces, linking every military training range in eight states.

That's how some citizens and environmentalists view a bevy of proposals by the U.S. Department of Defense to enhance combat readiness in the post-Cold War era. They suspect there's a military conspiracy at work.

"There's got to be a drawing board somewhere in the Pentagon where there's a spiderweb of military training routes that link all of the military bases, training ranges and bombing ranges throughout the West," says Lisa Shultz, a Boise, Idaho, attorney and project coordinator for the Owyhee Canyonlands Coalition.

More than a dozen proposals to modernize and expand training at military ranges in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah are putting mounting pressure on public lands that many recreationists and environmentalists want left alone. "They're doing this one proposal at a time in piecemeal fashion," says Shultz, "but if you add them all together, it's one great big training range."

In March, Shultz watched in dismay when the Air Force approved plans to create a bombing range in Idaho's Owyhee Canyonlands. If the Bureau of Land Management agrees to withdraw the land for military purposes, the bombing range will swallow 11,000 acres on the ground and expand Air Force airspace by 3 million acres. Shultz's group has been fighting the plan since its inception in 1993, arguing that it will harm wildlife, sacred sites of the Shoshone-Paiute Indians and recreation (HCN, 6/24/96).

The fight is not over. Shultz has been working with more than 25 groups, including several Native American tribes, to develop a lawsuit against the Department of Defense. If it's a matter of national security to beef up military training in the West, they argue, then the military should present the public with one unified proposal and justify it. Shultz believes the National Environmental Policy Act requires the Defense Department to conduct a "programmatic" environmental impact study on all the range proposals, not an environmental impact statement for each one.

Making promises

Air Force Col. Fred Pease, chief of the range and airspace division in the Pentagon, laughs at the conspiracy theory. He's heard it before. He's also heard the "sandbox" theory - the argument that every branch of the military needs its own range because it won't share its sandbox with friends.

Neither are true, he says.

Pease agrees there is a lack of coordination. "We probably ought to work together more closely," he says, "but in reality, each branch of the military is going about its business."

Each branch has to evaluate its training needs and make proposed adjustments as necessary, Pease says. For all branches to provide a coordinated view of their training needs would be a huge undertaking, akin to asking all federal land agencies to present a unified view on endangered species, he says.

However, he continues, the Air Force has agreed to prepare a national military needs assessment by the year 2000. "We want to get it down to the unit level so each unit can understand how its range supports the core capabilities of the Air Force."

The Pentagon also has promised the Bureau of Land Management that it will present a big-picture view of military training needs in the West by this fall, said Dwight Hempel, a BLM senior military liaison in Washington, D.C.

But Grace Potorti, director of the Reno-based Rural Alliance for Military Accountability, says she's heard such promises before: "They're refusing to give us an overall national picture of what's going on."

Potorti has been tracking many of the same range proposals since the late 1980s. At that time, the Department of Defense tried to take over 3 million acres of public land for new military training, on top of 25 million acres it already controls. Today, the proposals seek to withdraw less than 500,000 acres of land. But the widespread placement of radar targets, and the broad expansion of restricted air space - even without reserved target zones - can turn large areas of public land into a war zone.

"Wherever you have emitter sites (electronic targets), you have battlefield scenarios with jets flying at low altitude and sonic booms," Potorti says. "That can create a lot of havoc."

Low-impact war games

Col. Pease is trying to find ways to tweak training activities to avoid environmental and recreation impacts. In the Owyhees, the Air Force has offered to curtail flying over bighorn sheep habitat during lambing season and to restrict flights over the Owyhee and Bruneau canyons on weekends during whitewater boating season.

To find the right compromise on popular public lands will be tough, Pease concedes, especially when it comes to the effects of noise.

The military has enjoyed strong congressional support, when it comes to improving combat readiness. Idaho's governor and all four members of the congressional delegation are united in support of the Air Force's range-expansion proposal in the Owyhees, for example.

It's broadly perceived that a military base is stronger if there is a state-of-the-art training range nearby. Political leaders almost always support home-state military bases because they provide jobs and economic activity.

But Potorti and her allies are striving to build enough public support to get a big-picture view. Accidents - such as the snapping of a gondola cable by a low-flying Marine plane, which sent 20 skiers plunging to their death in Italy, and the accidental strafing of two utility linemen in Nevada - may raise awareness. The less well-known event occurred last October and involved a Navy plane that fired at an observation tower within the Bravo 20 bombing range. Linemen working on the tower were frightened but not injured in the attack. A pickup below, however, was damaged by cannon fire.

Said Grace Potorti of the incident, "Civilians are out there doing work and jets are strafing? What kind of controls do they have?" reports the Reno Gazette-Journal.

"This is about more than a bunch of environmentalists and outdoors people crying that their playgrounds are being snatched up," Shultz says. "It is about allowing for fully informed public participation in a process that has been wrapped in a shroud of secrecy regarding what the military is really trying to do with the West."

Stephen Stuebner writes in Boise, Idaho.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "Training and bombing range expansions at a glance."

You can contact ...

* Lisa Shultz, attorney, The Wilderness Society in Boise, 208/343-8153;

* Grace Potorti, Rural Alliance for Military Accountability, 702/677-7001;

* Col. Fred Pease, U.S. Air Force range and airspace division, Pentagon, 703/693-0650. Web site:

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