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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At least one Magdalena-area landowner and a handful of conservation groups are protesting a proposal to expand and extend an agreement that since 1977 has allowed military units based at Kirtland Air Force Base to conduct training in portions of the Cibola National Forest.
Critics say the military training disturbs nearby landowners and visitors, is harmful to wildlife habitat and should be conducted on military land instead of in public forests. They also question the need for the proposed 20-year extension of the agreement.
But the Air Force and a Marine Corps unit say the changes proposed are minor and the training areas accurately simulate places to which they have been, and could be, deployed.
Some military units at Kirtland have conducted training in portions of the Cibola since 1977, said Ruth Sutton, public affairs officer for the Cibola National Forest. The training takes place in the Sandia, Mount Taylor, Magdalena and Mountainair ranger districts.
That arrangement was formalized in 1988 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense signed a master agreement allowing military training to take place in national forests. Since then, the Cibola training activities have been governed by a Special Use Permit issued to the military by the U.S. Forest Service.
Because that agreement expires next year, Kirtland has applied to extend the agreement for another 20 years. It’s also asking for some modifications to the existing permit.
The re-permitting process began in January 2010 when the Forest Service notified congressional staff and federal, state, local and tribal agencies of the proposal, Sutton said. The Forest Service also notified environmental groups, permittees, members of the public and media about the proposal.
An environmental assessment gauging the potential impacts of the plan was released last July and interested parties were given until Aug. 20 to comment – a period critics say was too brief.
Cibola and Air Force officials are now responding to comments made during the comment period, Sutton said.
Forest Service officials are also considering holding public meetings on the proposal, particularly in Magdalena, Sutton said.
Eventually, a “draft decision notice” – one for the Air Force and one for the Forest Service – and a “Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI)” will be released for public review and anyone who has previously raised concerns about the proposal will have 45 days to file an objection to the draft decision.
Objections will be subject to review by a “reviewing officer” who, in this instance, will be Regional Forester Cal Joyner, Sutton said.
The objection process can include a meeting among the objector, Joyner and Forest Supervisor Elaine Kohrman in an effort to resolve the issues.
Environmental analyses are then conducted, including impacts on federally threatened, endangered and sensitive species, as well as effects to historic or prehistoric sites.
Kohrman will then decide whether to issue the Special Use Permit to the military. Such permits are typically accompanied by a “Plan of Operations” that details the activities allowed in specific locations. The Forest Service conducts inspections during the life of the permit for compliance, Sutton said.
Arian Pregenzer, who owns 160 acres north of Magdalena, said while she understands the military needs to train pilots and soldiers, she questions why that training has to be done in public forests when the military already owns “nearly 5,500 square miles of land” in New Mexico.
“The noise from helicopters both day and night shakes the houses, and disturbs wildlife and cattle,” Pregenzer said in an Aug. 22 Journal op-ed. “It completely destroys the peace in this wild and open area.”
In a letter to the Forest Service, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Backcountry Horsemen of New Mexico, Sierra Club, New Mexico Sportsmen and The Wilderness Society asked the agency to consider alternatives to using forest lands for military training, including limiting military training to military lands.
Pregenzer and the conservation groups suggest the training be conducted on Kirtland, Holloman Air Force Base, White Sands Missile Range or Fort Bliss.
“There are tons of other units, including the Army, already using those spaces,” countered Maj. Daniel Leichssenring, assistant commander of Kirtland’s 58th Special Operations Support Squadron, citing fighter training at Holloman, missile testing at White Sands and tank training at Fort Bliss.
Lt. Col. Christina Willard, 58th Special Operations Support Squadron commander, said training in mountainous areas – as opposed to the relatively lower elevations of Holloman, White Sands and Fort Bliss – is invaluable to Air Force pilots.
“It provides realistic training,” she said. “Because we send people out to units that might not have this terrain there, we train for it here. Then when they’re sent to do operational things overseas, they’ve already worked in that environment before.
“Also, the altitude affects the engines differently, so their takeoffs and landings change. Training at altitude gives them realistic experience, so they know what to expect,” Willard said.
Two Air Force units and one Marine unit based at Kirtland currently train in the Cibola: the 58th Special Operations Wing; the 342nd Training Squadron; and the Marine’s 4th Reconnaissance Battalion.
The 58th Special Operations Wing conducts helicopter combat and cargo air-drop training. The wing’s “helicopter” training primarily involves the CV-22 Osprey, a hybrid aircraft that combines the vertical flight capabilities of a helicopter with the speed and range of a turboprop airplane. In remote areas, the Ospreys land and take off like a helicopter. The 58th also flies HH-60 Pave Hawk and UH-1N Huey helicopters.
That training, which takes place in the Sandia, Mountainair and Magdalena Ranger Districts, trains pilots to approach, land and depart in remote landing zones. Those districts are ideal for high-altitude training, where the thin air affects aircraft handling and efficiency, officers with the 58th said.
Currently, the 58th trains at two helicopter landing zones – one at the southern end of the Manzano Mountains in the Mountainair Ranger District, and one a few miles north of Magdalena in the Magdalena Ranger District. Typically, a landing zone is no larger than 200 feet by 200 feet square.
The 58th conducts about 300 days of training annually, flying about 4,375 sorties, or flights. The average number of training days per year on a given landing zone would range from 52 to 312.
Although those numbers won’t change under the proposal, the Air Force is asking for three additional helicopter landing zones in the Magdalena district.
Kirtland’s 342nd Training Squadron trains pararescuemen, also known as PJs, who are members of Air Force Special Operations combat search-and-rescue teams. Their main mission is rescuing downed air crews in hostile territory.
The 342nd currently conducts four tactics and rescue classes annually in the Mount Taylor and Magdalena ranger districts, and spends up to six days per class in the forest. Although the proposal would allow a maximum of 175 students per year to participate in the training, the classes currently involve an average of 80 students per year, Fleming said.
The 342nd is asking to increase the number of classes from the current four to five per year, and to hold the additional class in the Magdalena Ranger District.
Once or twice a year, a maximum of 80 Marines, Navy Corpsmen and support personnel practice reconnaissance and patrolling techniques in the Cibola, mainly in the Magdalena Ranger District, said Maj. Brian Cillessen, spokesman for the U.S. Marine Corps’ 4th Reconnaissance Battalion
These exercises, which last three to six days, involve Marines moving furtively by foot through mountainous terrain and relaying information about enemy locations, topography, roads and infrastructure to commanders.
The troops are sometimes dropped by air into the area, where they set up base camps consisting of a command post and two-man tents. Under the proposal, the number of reconnaissance training exercises could increase from a maximum of two per year to three.