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Crowd packs meeting on proposed increase in F-16 flights

Opponents of an Air Force plan to expand its F-16 training air space over southwest New Mexico held a rally outside the Grant County administration building Tuesday just before Grant County commissioners held a special meeting to hear the Air Force proposal. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

SILVER CITY — A standing-room-only crowd of concerned residents filled a Grant County Commission special meeting Tuesday night to hear about a proposal to increase F-16 training flights over the Gila National Forest and wilderness area.

“We have a fighter pilot shortage,” said Alan Schafer, lead airspace analyst for the U.S. Air Force, at the beginning of his presentation. Schafer said the Air Force chose to begin adjusting air space at Holloman Air Force Base to train new pilots and is expanding air space to accommodate the newest F-16 jets.

“It has a radar that looks a lot farther out, they have weapons systems that reach farther out,” he said.

County Commissioner Harry Browne questioned Schafer about why Silver City had not been selected as the site of an open house meeting during the period when the Air Force was seeking official comments.

Schafer responded, “I’m sorry the information didn’t flow all the way down to the concerned citizens of Silver City.”

Holloman AFB held open house meetings in Truth or Consequences, Las Cruces and Carlsbad, site of a second proposal to adjust airspace, but none in Silver City.

A pair of protesters say no to military overflights at a rally before a Grant County Commission special meeting Tuesday. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

The Tuesday meeting came at the request of the congressional delegation after a public outcry from Silver City residents who complained they were left out.

At a rally before the meeting, Grant County residents held signs opposed to the plan to allow F16 flights deeper into the Gila National Forest and wilderness area.

“I’m against it for the simple reason, the wildlife is going to be disturbed and there are people who have businesses in the Gila Wilderness area,” said Dennis Lane, a Silver City resident who attended he rally.

Business owners who depend on outdoor recreation and tourism said they are concerned the increase in flights and noise will drive away visitors.

“Can you describe what it’s like to be under an F-16?,” asked Alicia Edwards Grant County Commissioner for District 3. The audience applauded. Schafer said the noise analysis will be part of the environmental impact draft report.

“I have experienced it several times backpacking through the Gila. It definitely is startling,” said Browne.

Commissioners also asked about possible fires from flares during training and how many days out of the year fire danger is considered high or extreme. Schafer said that would be determined during the analysis period.

District 1 Commissioner Gabriel Ramos said many area residents have relatives in the military and, “We do want them to have the best training possible.” But he said the impact of the increased flights needs to be studied carefully.

“We want to make sure it’s absolutely essential you have to use our national forest. Several residents speaking during the public comment period said they were military veterans and opposed the expanded training area.

Schafer said Air Force is still accepting comments electronically via a website or by mail and urged residents to send their concerns within the next few weeks.

“My favorite uncle in the entire world is from Silver City. It’s on my short list of places to retire. You have a special place here. I understand that and the Air Force understands that,” said Schafer.

Chris Schlabach, owner of Gila Hike and Bike, was among the speakers at a rally in Silver City organized by Grant County residents who are concerned about a proposal to increase F-16 training flights over southwest New Mexico. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)