Idaho governor fights for a bombing range

  • Proposed bombing range

    Diane Sylvain
  • An aerial view of Owyhee Canyon, Idaho

    Glenn Oakley

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 southwest Idaho.

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.

Although 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.

But 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 this."

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.

Beyond the 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 public lands.

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 canyon.

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.

Andrus 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 governor said.

"Now, 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.

But 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 Shoshone-Paiute Indians.

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 member.

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.

"The Air 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.

He 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.

Andrus 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 if needed.

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.

"If I 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."

Steve Stuebner writes frequently for High Country News from Boise, Idaho.

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 83701(208/384-1023).

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