Enviros not sure ‘copter plan should fly
Post Independent Staff
A proposed expansion of military helicopter training over local public lands is shaping up into a conflict between protecting national security and preserving the natural environment.
The Colorado Army National Guard is seeking to double operations at its High-Altitude Army Aviation Training Site, based at the Eagle County Airport. The plan would increase annual maximum flight hours from 3,000 to 6,000 over U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands.
The National Guard has prepared a draft environmental assessment that emphasizes the importance of the training for U.S. forces fighting in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
“With long-term efforts in anti-terrorism, peacekeeping and other combat requirements, more aircrews will require this training,” the draft EA states.
But Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale, said he is surprised at the draft EA’s conclusion that the expansion would have no significant environmental impact, “particularly when it’s in violation of the forest plan.”
The White River National Forest plan recommends that the 50,000-acre Red Table Mountain/Gypsum Creek area south of Gypsum be considered for wilderness designation, and that Deep Creek in the Flat Tops be considered a candidate for protection in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
Shoemaker said those areas are supposed to be protected under the forest plan, pending decisions on their management designation.
But he said environmentalists are put in a difficult spot by the Guard proposal.
“How do we advocate for wildland protection without appearing to be unconcerned about pilots being put in harm’s way? That’s a very difficult corner to be painted into,” he said.
The draft EA states, “In both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, accidents and issues have occurred that reflect a lack of the training offered at (the High-Altitude Army Aviation Training Site).”
It said that in the first six months of the war in Afghanistan, U.S. military helicopters with crews lacking the training provided at the site suffered loss of life and excessive damage during fighting, and some were damaged or destroyed even when not in combat. Then trained crews arrived and completed their six-month rotation without incident or damage, “and inflicted severe damage upon the enemy and his capabilities,” it said.
The National Guard began operating out of the airport in 1985. Its facility grew into a high-altitude training program that is unique in the United States. Various U.S. military services and allies all train there, taking advantage of the region’s variations in altitude, weather and topography, and dealing with helicopter “power management” issues these factors create for crews.
According to the draft EA, in the past five years, helicopter crews without the specialized training suffered 174 noncombat accidents in the United States due to power management issues, while trained ones suffered none related to those issues.
Said Shoemaker, “Of course we support the troops and we support safety and good training for the troops so they come back alive from their overseas … assignments.”
But he said the focus needs to be on reaching agreement on landing spots that aren’t in sensitive environmental areas.
“How much of a homeland do you sacrifice to protect the homeland?” Shoemaker asked.
U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat whose district includes Eagle County, supports the mission of the training site. However, Udall spokesman Lawrence Pacheco said the congressman also is urging the National Guard to find landing sites that aren’t in sensitive areas.
But from the National Guard’s perspective, Deep Creek “can’t be duplicated” in terms of the flying and landing challenges it presents to helicopters because of its steep walls, pinnacles and ridges, the draft EA states.
Altogether, the National Guard facility takes advantage of 11 training areas encompassing 444,000 acres. Some 170,000 of those acres are in the Flat Tops north of Glenwood Springs, while the rest are north and south of the Eagle/Gypsum area. The draft EA describes the Flat Tops as a “premier” training area, with open terrain, higher winds, and snowfields that replicate desert conditions.
The draft EA indicates that in the western mountainous states, most of the land that is potentially suitable for high-altitude training is in Colorado.
The document concludes that the expanded operations would result in “no irreversible or irretrievable commitment of resources that would prevent future wilderness designation,” and that they would have no impacts on eligibility and potential suitability of rivers to be designated as wild and scenic.
However, it finds that some primitive and semiprimitive, nonmotorized BLM lands in Deep Creek could be affected.
Current operations avoid the existing Flat Tops and Holy Cross wilderness areas, as well as cities. The draft EA also spells out restrictions, some of them seasonal, aimed at protecting peregrine falcons; bat caves; and areas where deer, elk and bighorn sheep give birth to their young.
Cal Wettstein, U.S. Forest district ranger for the Eagle/Holy Cross district, said the National Guard already is taking unofficial measures to protect wildlife, but the new proposal would make those measures binding.
The National Guard conducts local training flights under agreements with the Forest Service and BLM that date back to the 1980s.
Shoemaker said the agreement with the Forest Service makes no allowance for helicopters touching down except in emergencies. Wettstein said the agreement is unclear on that point, and one goal of the EA is to analyze the impacts of landings in the forest.
He said the Forest Service also wants to consider concerns such as those pertaining to potential wilderness areas.
He said the proposal raises unique considerations because of the national security aspects involved. The Forest Service wants to accommodate the training “to the degree we can while protecting the values out there,” such as wilderness, recreation and wildlife, Wettstein said.
The draft EA was issued Oct. 19 and initially provided for a 30-day comment period. However, Udall asked for a 30-day extension to give people more time to consider the 446-page draft EA. Pacheco said late Thursday that the National Guard agreed to postpone the comment deadline until Dec. 23.
Copies of the draft EA are available in local libraries or by writing Capt. Robert Bell, Public Affairs Officer, Colorado National Guard, 6848 S. Revere Parkway, Centennial CO 80112. Comments also should be submitted to the same address.
Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516
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