Idaho air base guns for more space, again

 

If cats have nine lives, how many lives do bombing range expansions have? Air Force officials hope their plan for an air training and dummy bomb range in southwest Idaho has at least three.

In a series of meetings early this month, Mountain Home Air Force Base unveiled its third training-range expansion plan. Air Force officials heard testimony in five Idaho towns as well as Elko, Nev., and Jordan Valley, Ore.

"Right now, I think the most important point is that we're trying to work with environmentalists, ranchers and Native Americans to come up with a proposal that will work for everyone," says Air Force public affairs officer Lt. Michael Thompson.

Instead of proposing several bombing-target zones covering 25,000 acres around the incised canyons of the Owyhee Plateau as it did in the last go-round, the Air Force proposes just one 12,000-acre target zone near the Bruneau River, about 50 miles from the base.

The proposal hasn't gone over well with opponents of the expansion, who wonder how many times they will have to kill range projects before they get shelved for good (HCN, 1/24/94). They point to the impact such a scheme would have on the Owyhee - several million acres of steppes, plateaus, canyons and pinnacles which are unknown to most Americans (HCN, 2/21/94).

"The Air Force still doesn't have a clue about how important the canyonlands are," says Idaho Rivers United executive director Wendy Wilson, who has gotten knocked over by the thundering noise of low-flying jets in the past.

Thompson counters that the Air Force appreciates the special beauty of the canyons, and has agreed to suspend war games when the area's California bighorn sheep are lambing in the spring. Other concerns include the impact of low-flying fighter jets on domestic livestock, recreationists and Shoshone-Paiute Indians. Another revolves around the effects of dropping chaff, small bundles of aluminum that are designed to fool enemy radar.

Opponents say even though the Air Force's new target zone only amounts to 12,000 acres, fliers would conduct a series of war games over a 3 million-acre region on public land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. Last year, the base logged 5,700 flights in the region.

"We're going to have an enormous amount of noise out there," says Craig Gehrke, regional director of The Wilderness Society. "It's hard to convince people that silence is a valuable resource."

The Air Force argues that its existing 110,000-acre Saylor Creek Range is insufficient for realistic training, and it needs more target zones close to the base. Training flights to military ranges in Nevada and Utah take too much time, says Thompson.

The Air Force itself has sent mixed messages about the need for an additional training range. In early June, Air Force attorney Peter Bogy said, "It's a need because it's more efficient to have a local training range, but it's not a requirement upon which the composite wing (some 65 fighter jets, F-16s, F-15Cs, and F-15Es, B1 bombers and KC-135 tankers that were moved to the Mountain Home Station in 1992) lives or dies."

Murray Feldman, a Boise attorney for the Greater Owyhee Legal Defense (GOLD), chuckled at the statement. "They're trying to make a distinction between a requirement and a need. It's just classic government doublespeak."

The Air Force is currently preparing a draft environmental impact statement on its newest range proposal.

Idaho Rivers United has put together a Web site that can receive comments and forward them to the Air Force. During its first week of operation this month, the site generated hundreds of comments. Contact: http://www.desktop.org/iruf/bombing.

The writer lives in Boise, Idaho.

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