The Air Force has a good argument for expanding its existing “special use airspaces” over which F-16 fighter pilots train: When the airspaces were set up 30 years ago, they were designed for aircraft with significantly different missions and performance capabilities than the supersonic F-16 Fighting Falcons that fly out of Holloman today.
Unfortunately, by not hosting a public meeting on the proposed changes near Silver City — one of the planned expansions would bring the fly-overs closer to Silver City and over larger portions of the Gila Wilderness — Air Force officials opened the door to speculation and increased opposition. Some Silver City residents and at least one environmental group have already stormed through, and are denouncing both the planned expansion and Air Force secrecy.
To their credit, Air Force officials held “open-house style scoping meetings” in Truth or Consequences, Las Cruces and Carlsbad in mid-September. And they are still accepting written comments.
But state Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, expressed concern in a letter to Holloman officials that Silver City – “the most populated area in the Gila which would be most affected by the addition of thousands of F-16 flights” – was not selected as a site for a public meeting on the proposed expansion of airspace.
The Air Force has announced plans to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement to assess potential environmental consequences of modifying existing “special use airspace” and/or creating new airspace. The proposed statement would analyze two alternatives, according to the notice of intent in the Federal Register:
Alternative 1 would re-configure and expand the existing Talon Military Operations Area (MOA), which encompasses 2,447 square miles near Carlsbad. The proposal would expand that by 1,821 square miles, mostly northward from Carlsbad.
Alternative 2 would modify the existing Cato/Smitty Military Operation Area north of Silver City and/or create a new adjacent Lobos Military Operation Area. The Cato/Smitty MOA covers 3,549 square miles and would be expanded to the southeast. The size of that expansion will be determined later in the process, according to Robin Devine with the Air Force Civil Engineering Center. A new Lobos MOA would be created south of the revised Cato/Mitty MOA.
The Environmental Impact Statement would include a “no action” alternative in which Holloman would continue using its existing airspace as it currently does — an alternative not supported by Air Force officials.
Many of the nearly 10,000 people who live in Silver City are no doubt interested in finding out exactly how their lives might be affected by expanding or adding an area where fourth-generation fighter aircraft will train — at both low and high altitudes. Outfitters, hunters, hikers, anglers and others who enjoy the nearby Gila Wilderness are likely to have similar questions.
Grant County will host an informational meeting at 6 tonight in Silver City and Air Force officials are slated to attend. But the fact that the Air Force left the western side of the state out of its own public meetings has raised questions that are likely to be more pointed — and tinged with suspicion.
Grant County has stepped in to host an “informational meeting” on the proposals at 6 tonight at the Grant County Administration Center, 1400 Highway 180 East, in Silver City. Air Force officials are slated to attend.
Air Force officials say the public can still submit written comments at www.hollomanafbairspaceeis.com/Comments.aspx (although Sept. 25 was the deadline “to ensure full consideration in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.”)