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Should military training permit be renewed in ’14?

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The military has been training in the Cibola National Forest for a long time, with operations in the Sandia Mountains and the Mount Taylor, Mountainair, and Magdalena ranger districts. Those who live, work, hunt or hike in the Manzano Mountains or near Magdalena experience the deafening noise of frequent low-flying aircraft. Many also have encountered ground-based training – with pyrotechnics, combat simulations and dozens of soldiers traveling over the land at night.

The Special Use Permit issued by the Forest Service covering these activities expires in 2014. The military proposes to continue training on forest lands and to concentrate activity near Magdalena. The proposal includes construction of three new helicopter landing zones, where the Air Force will conduct 4,378 flights each year and perform 26,230 maneuvers. It will also increase the number and size of field training exercises in that area.

The Air Force has completed an environmental assessment for its proposal, which includes more than 700 pages of documents. On July 21, the Forest Service requested public comments within 30 days, not nearly enough time to review such a complex document, much less to educate the public and gather their views. The Forest Service should extend the comment period and conduct public meetings in locations near the training sites to make sure that the public is fully informed.

Most of us understand the need for training pilots and soldiers to fight terrorism abroad. But why does the military need to use public land for this important mission? There are over 2.3 million acres of land among Kirtland Air Force Base, Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Fort Bliss has 1.12 million acres. This is nearly 5,500 square miles of land!

This level of training violates the Forest Service mission “to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” Before acting on this proposal, the Forest Service should ask for a thorough assessment of options for using military land.

The military’s assessment states the impact of these activities is minimal. For example, it estimates only a few people will be “moderately or more annoyed” by the noise from the aircraft and cite numbers and statistics to prove that noise levels do not exceed acceptable levels for people or wildlife. This is simply wrong. The noise from helicopters both day and night shakes the houses and disturbs wildlife and cattle – it completely destroys the peace in this wild and open area.

The assessment also states that disturbance to soil and vegetation will be minimal, and that there will be no long-term effects from ground training activities. This is very misleading. I’ve observed camps after a training event: vegetation is flattened, there is evidence of off-road traffic and wildlife habitat is destroyed. This terrain probably will never recover and will likely degrade further as denuded soil erodes.

There are many more issues that deserve attention, including inappropriate designation of roads available to heavy vehicles, trespassing on private property and the risk of fire. The assessment prepared by the Air Force is both incomplete and inadequate.

Why does the Forest Service need to make a decision on the renewal of the military’s permit now? The Cibola has just begun a major revision of its forest management plan, which will take two to three years, and include extensive public involvement. This seems like the perfect opportunity to review the practice of allowing the military to use Forest Service land.

At a higher level, there needs to be much more scrutiny of military use of public lands in New Mexico, which impacts areas far beyond the Cibola National Forest.

For example, Cannon AFB is developing a proposal to establish a Low Altitude Tactical Navigation Area over a large area of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado where they will conduct hundreds of low-level training operations annually over wilderness areas in New Mexico and Colorado.

Is that what the citizens of New Mexico and Colorado really want? The discussion should start now, before it’s too late.

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