Military's fly-by-night scheme raises lots of questions

  • Brooke Ann Zanetell

 

Imagine how it would feel: You're asleep in bed at midnight, when suddenly, the roar of a fighter plane flying just a few hundred feet above your head wakes you up with a bang.

But not to worry, the plane is one of ours. Our military's pilots simply need to practice their skill at flying 300 feet above the ground. Night-vision goggles make such daring feats possible in the dark, enabling pilots to skim over mountains and swoop in and out of canyons. Now, pilots from Cannon Air Force Base in southeastern New Mexico want to run their war games over some 60,000 square miles of Southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico, flying Monday through Friday for a total of 688 flights per year.

Some residents of the far-flung area, however, say that the risks and potential impacts of these flights -- ranging from crashes, jet-fueled wildfires, triggered avalanches, air pollution and harmful effects on wildlife and cattle -- warrant more study before the military decides to give itself the go-ahead. Cannon Air Force Base proposed the night flights in the fall of 2010, and just a year later, on Sept. 7, 2011, released a cursory Environmental Assessment that concluded that the flights would have "no significant impact."

Nov. 5 is the deadline for the public to ask the military to slow down and fully examine the issue through a thorough environmental impact statement. It seems odd that Cannon Air Force Base reached a "no significant impact" decision, given that resolutions opposing the flyovers have come from towns such as La Veta, Colo., as well as from the Rio Arriba, Taos and Santa Fe county commissions in New Mexico, the city councils of Las Vegas, Angel Fire and Taos, N.M., and several volunteer fire departments from that state.

The military's environmental assessment raises questions that have never been answered. For instance, it lauds the virtues of the C-130 transport-refueling plane and the CV-22 Osprey turboprop aircraft that would be involved in the night flights, but fails to mention that the Osprey has a terrible track record for accidents -- a "fundamental susceptibility," according to one military officer -- and has been on the federal chopping block for more than a decade.  The assessment does note that if you're sleeping, you'll only be awakened once a year - twice, if you have your windows open.

At public meetings, I found it mystifying that Cannon Air Force personnel could not answer basic questions about noise levels and flight altitude over ranches and wilderness areas. A bigger question is whether this proposed training area is needed in the first place.  Cannon Air Force Base claims that pilots need mountainous terrain to prepare for the kinds and types of war that the United States engages in today.  Yet a huge portion of mountainous and challenging terrain in Colorado and New Mexico is already allotted for military training flights by six Air Force bases, our Air Force Academy, and one Air Force range. How much turf is enough when our country's goal is to withdraw from both Iraq and Afghanistan?

It could be that Cannon is trying to counter a 2005 Department of Defense recommendation that the base be closed. Back then, then New Mexico Rep. Tom Udall defended Cannon, noting the value of its "unrestricted air space and bombing ranges." Perhaps the night-flight training proposal is a ploy, designed to demonstrate that this Air Force base is still needed despite massive budget cuts ordered by Congress and the ongoing transition to drone warfare.

To its credit, Cannon Air Force Base officials recently concluded a second round of public meetings, though there was a major problem about the location of those meetings.  Even though southwest Colorado is a major chunk of the proposed training area, meetings were held only in three affected communities:  Durango, Montrose and Gunnison. Three other meetings were held where no flights are planned: Alamosa, plus large and military-friendly cities of Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Why is the Front Range having a say over what happens on the Western Slope?

As the comment deadline nears, most elected officials have yet to take a stand. If citizens don't ask for an environmental impact study and raise concerns, then the current finding of "no significant impact" will hold, and training flights will begin as early as 2012.

Given the taxpayer price tag of $11,000 per hour, per flight, it's not too much to ask that our politicians and military tell us exactly what we're getting for our money.

Brooke Ann Zanetell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She has a Ph.D. in natural resources and is a former diplomacy fellow with the U.S. State Department. She lives in Taos, New Mexico.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...