In military matters, neighbors should get a say

A new Air Force base expands, without the input of locals.

 

Sharman Apt Russell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is a writer in New Mexico.


On Sept. 27, 1956, my father piloted the tricky, experimental X-2 on one of its first flights of well over 1,000 miles per hour. That day, the rocket plane performed exceptionally well and set a new speed record. Then it spun wildly out of control. I was only 2 years old when Captain Milburn Apt crashed and died in the Mojave Desert at Edwards Air Force Base, California. I have always admired my father’s courage and service to this country, as I admire the courage and service of so many American pilots.

Yet I do not admire what the Air Force plans to do where I live. In 2018, Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico will decide whether to create a new Military Operations Area for F-16 fighter jets above the Gila River watershed in Grant County, New Mexico.

There would be potentially 10,000 “sorties” a year, with a sortie defined as a plane leaving and returning to the Air Force base. Ten percent of those flights will be Mach 1, faster than the speed of sound at 768 mph, and 10 percent will take place at night. Many of the fighter jets will be flying at high speed just 500 feet above the ground. Others will be dropping flares and a radar-deflecting metal material called chaff from above 2,000 feet. These maneuvers, designed to test new pilots, will take place over the Gila National Forest and Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas, skirting the vibrant arts-and-culture town of Silver City.

How did local people react to these plans? They weren’t asked. A 30-day “scoping process” to inform the Environmental Impact Statement required by this plan took place this last fall. To help assess the environmental and social impacts of the flights, the Air Force held three town meetings, but not one was in the affected area of Grant County, New Mexico, a population of 30,000.

A two-ship of B-1B Lancers release chaff and flares while maneuvering over New Mexico during a training mission.

Not a single voice from the farmers and ranchers of Grant County was heard. Nor from Silver City, a community that largely depends on tourism, recreation and retirement. And not a single voice was heard from the many people who value the heritage of this country’s oldest wilderness and the peaceful beauty of New Mexico’s last free-flowing river.

The Air Force made no serious attempt to inform the citizens of Grant County about the new Military Operations Area. At a special county commission meeting that was organized after the military’s scoping process had closed, Air Force representatives said that they had sent a letter to one county commissioner and another letter to a regional newspaper that was not the newspaper of record. The Air Force apologized for any misunderstanding and agreed to allow further public comment up to the completion of their draft EIS this spring. More public hearings will then follow.

Those comments can be submitted online or mailed to an address on that website. Among two options, Alternative Two creates a new testing area.

Here in Grant County, we have the next few months to help shape that draft environmental impact statement. Some of us will explain how bursts of extreme noise — sonic booms — many times an hour will affect our health and well-being, as well as our sleeping patterns. Others will talk about the effect of sporadic booms on deer and other wildlife, horses, hikers, hunters, children and the elderly and sick, as well as property values. We can point to the values of silence and solitude that are embedded in the Wilderness Act itself. We can explore the potential hazards of falling chaff to wildlife and people.

Ken Ladner, the mayor of Silver City, has already written a letter to Holloman Air Force Base opposing the plan, citing the town’s dependence on tourism but also noting potential damage to Native American sites from sound vibrations. He also cited the impacts to the “vast scientific laboratory” of the Gila National Forest and the role of this area as a gateway to the Continental Divide Trail system. The mayor invited Air Force officials to visit Silver City before making a decision and concluded, “I would be happy to be your personal guide.”

My friends and neighbors in the Gila Valley are not anti-military. But the way the Air Force initially pushed this plan through without consulting those most affected by it was flat wrong. The scale of training being proposed for this new Military Operations Area is extreme. Holloman Air Force Base has other options, including dividing these 10,000 flights among multiple training areas and the nearby White Sands Missile Range.

Preserving the unique character of rural New Mexico is more than a self-interested, not-in-my-backyard stance. Our national forests and wilderness areas deserve protection because they are legacies that belong to everyone.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]