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Grant County to take comments on Air Force training plan

CORRECTION: A headline on an earlier version of this story should have made it clear that the Grant County Commission, not the Air Force, was taking comments on an expanded F-16 training plan.

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

A large crowd is expected tonight in Silver City for a special meeting of the Grant County Commission where the Air Force will discuss a proposal that would allow F-16 fighter jets to fly deeper over the Gila National Forest.

In a change of plans, public comments on the proposal will be accepted during the meeting.

Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo is part of a larger plan by the Air Force to adjust airspace to accommodate modern aircraft, since much of the available “legacy” air space dates back to the 1950s.

“The Air Force is experiencing a serious shortage of fighter pilots – the most recent two squadrons at Holloman were converted from operational units to training units as a partial means of addressing this acute shortage,” said Sherman McCorkle, with the Military Base Planning Commission, in a letter to the Journal.

In some cases the Air Force will “relinquish airspace that is no longer required; in other situations, increase the size,” according to McCorkle.

Tonight’s meeting was originally planned to be informational only, but late last week the Grant County Commission decided to include a public comment period. Speakers are required to sign up before the meeting and will be limited to three minutes each.

“I hope that they listen to what people have to say and they consider it very carefully,” said Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition.

Siwik plans to sign up to speak at the meeting. She predicted a crowd for the meeting and at a rally beforehand in Silver City.

“The Gila’s a special place and we don’t want to see it ruined by these 10,000 sorties over the area. This is a huge military presence in the skies above our area,” Siwik said.

Holloman has already conducted open house meetings concerning the plan in Truth or Consequences, Las Cruces and Carlsbad – the site of a second proposal to adjust airspace – but did not schedule one in Silver City. Tonight’s meeting came at the request of New Mexico’s congressional delegation after a public outcry from county residents who complained they were left out of the process.

“Holloman Air Force Base is an incredible asset to New Mexico and our nation’s security, and its access to pristine airspace allows pilots who train there to get experience that is unparalleled. But as the Air Force moves forward with this assessment, it is imperative that officials hear the concerns of Grant Country residents,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., in an emailed statement.

Air Force representatives will be participating in county commission meetings in Silver City, Reserve and Socorro to respond to community concerns as Holloman AFB works to prepare an environmental impact study.

Keeley Christensen, press secretary for Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said, “The congressman believes any changes must include and consider the input of the local communities.

“The military missions in New Mexico are essential to our national security, but must also consider equitable access to airspace, impacts to the environment, and the local economy.”

The special meeting is not part of the formal process used by the Air Force to prepare an environmental impact report. Holloman will continue to accept comments electronically via a website or by mail during the environmental impact analysis period, which continues through next spring and will be followed by hearings.

McCorkle said in his letter, “Hopefully, New Mexicans can continue to participate in this process in an objective and non-emotional manner. Thus, New Mexico will continue to play a vital role in our country’s national security, as it has for decades.”