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National Guard plans to double flights from Eagle

Jeremy Heiman
Special to the Post Independent

The Colorado Army National Guard in Eagle hopes to double its high-altitude training flights from the Eagle County Airport.

Because the training involves landings on national forest and U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands, the Forest Service is requesting comments from the public on the proposal.

Until now, the Guard has been flying up to 3,000 hours a year in training flights from the Eagle County Airport. The new proposal seeks approval for up to 6,000 hours of flights per year, said Jeff Stalter, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) coordinator for the Colorado Army National Guard.



The purpose for the increase in activity is “to improve combat readiness with realistic training opportunities in high-elevation settings,” according to a release. Flight training is generally within a 25-mile radius of the Eagle County Airport.

Jim Thinnes, acting district ranger for the Forest Service’s Eagle Ranger District, said up to now the Guard’s training program has been operating under a relatively informal agreement with the land management agencies.



A new agreement would make the arrangement legal under federal environmental laws and under the White River National Forest’s management plan.

Both Stalter and Thinnes said no new landing sites would be added, and flight patterns won’t change.

Residential areas won’t be affected any more than they currently are.

“They avoid ’em as much as possible,” Stalter said.

Wilderness areas and lands under consideration by Congress for wilderness designation will continue to be avoided as well, Thinnes said. But some areas that have been suggested for protection may continue to see Guard training activity.

Sloan Shoemaker, conservation director for the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, said his organization thinks certain areas now used for training should be reconsidered.

“We acknowledge and respect the need for professional training for our military pilots,” Shoemaker said. “A lot of our helicopter pilots are in harm’s way in Asia right now, and we feel they should be as well trained and highly skilled as possible. But we’re also concerned that some of these flights are taking place in sensitive areas.”

Shoemaker pointed out that certain areas now used for training are recommended for wilderness designation in either the White River National Forest Management Plan, in proposed legislation, or by citizen groups.

“Some of the places they’ve found that work very well for their training are also some of the last really wild places in Western Colorado,” he said. A large area on Red Table Mountain, for example, is recommended for wilderness status in the forest plan.

Deep Creek Canyon, extending from Deep Lake on the Flat Tops to the Colorado River near Dotsero, is now used by the Guard for training, and would continue to be used under the new plan.

The new forest plan labels Deep Creek Canyon as eligible to be a wild and scenic river, a designation that allows for protection under federal law.

But the current uses of the canyon will be allowed to continue until a decision is made by Congress whether to include the canyon in the Wild and Scenic Rivers system, Thinnes said.

Shoemaker also said he has some concerns about the way the Guard is handling the environmental assessment of the plan. When the first meeting to gain public input was scheduled, he said, the National Guard didn’t place required public notices in newspapers or contact interested parties. He said his organization was only alerted by a telephone call from the Forest Service the day before the meeting.

The 30-day comment period on the plan ends April 1.

Additional information is available at http://www.dmva.state.co.us/viewpage.php?PageID=33.

Comments can be sent to Master Sgt. Deborah Smith, Colorado National Guard, 6848 S. Revere Parkway, Centennial, CO 80112.

Contact Jeremy Heiman: 945-8515, ext. 534

jheiman@postindependent.com


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