The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.
Posing here with a B-1 in April 2013 at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, the 77th Weapons School unit provides weapons training to B-1 Bomber squadrons at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Photo courtesy/USAF
Feds extend comment period on Air Force
war-games over Indian country
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor
PART I |
PART II | PART III
ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is extending the deadline to May 3 for public letters of comment on the military’s proposal to expand the Powder River Training Complex to include airspace over four Great Plains Indian reservations and additional ancestral lands in four states.
The Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux tribes, as well as the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes, have raised objections since 2008 in negotiations with the 28th Bomb Wing on the proposal to extend the geographical area for B-1 bomber training missions currently operating out of Ellsworth Air Force Base in western South Dakota and B-52 bombers operating out of Minot Air Force Base in central North Dakota.
The FAA comments and the tribes’ government-to-government negotiations with the U.S. Air Force are part of the process to finalize a 2010 draft environmental impact statement on a 35,000 square-mile range for large-scale bomber and fighter jet exercises.
The extended deadline allowed more time for the resolutions of county commissioners, among other parties.
At the Pennington County Board of Commissioners meeting March 18, Vice Chairperson Nancy Trautman moved to prepare a letter of support for the expansion and authorize the chairperson’s signature. The one member of the public who testified was in favor of the motion, and it carried unanimously.
At a March 26 meeting in Meade County, Commissioner Galen Niederwerder offered a resolution to oppose the expansion and send a letter to the FAA, which was supported by all five members of the public who appeared to testify.
However the commissioners voted 3 to 2 to defeat the proposal. Instead they unanimously approved a letter outlining the public’s apprehensions. It said, “We are writing to express the following concerns regarding the PRTC:
“We oppose flight restrictions, which would negatively affect the operations of local airports and individual farmers and ranchers who fly to check cattle and crops, and other commercial, emergency, and recreational fliers.
“The U.S. Air Force has failed in the past to timely indemnify farmers and ranchers for damages they caused,” the letter states. “We feel the risk of fires from flares and chaff may be significant and it's a matter of when, not if, an accident will occur.
“The area in question contains productive farm and ranch land, but is sparsely populated, which means the volunteer firefighters have limited resources,” it continues. “We are concerned about low-level flights under 500 feet, which may or may not be supersonic.
“If the U.S. Air Force would create a means in which damages would be mitigated immediately, it would ease our concerns,” the letter concludes.
Expansion means shorter runs, bigger battles
The FAA announced the extended comment period after representatives of aircraft owners associations and lawmakers from Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming balked over the original April 3 deadline.
“A large number of Montanans have expressed credible concerns regarding the proposed Powder River Training Complex expansion,” said Montana Rep. Steve Daines.
“In addition, many Montanans have voiced frustration that FAA has not provided transparent public notification of the comment period for the proposal,” he said in an April 1 letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “I urge the FAA to take immediate steps to remedy these concerns,” he said.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune had met with Huerta earlier in the year in an effort to expedite the permitting process. Thune is the top ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which oversees the FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The expansion would quadruple the PRTC area, making it the equivalent of half the size of the entire state of South Dakota, and the largest training airspace over the continental United States.
The Air Force says the expansion would save money and provide environmental benefits.
An FAA study released to members of its mailing list in February notes that the expansion responds to dramatic changes in modern warfare doctrine, which currently oblige Ellsworth crews to fly to Nevada or Utah for suitably large training grounds.
Under the proposal, airspace would be closed in the expanded area both mornings and evenings from Mondays through Fridays for 240 days a year. The enlarged PRTC boundaries would facilitate shorter sorties, which would allow military aircraft to fly two missions a day, doubling the training capacity for crews at Ellsworth and Minot.
FAA notes that training closer to Ellsworth would have saved an estimated $21 million in flying-hour costs in Fiscal Year 2013.
The expanded range would enable so-called Large-Force Exercises (LFEs), in which multiple aircraft and crews train together creating a mock combat scenario. The different types of activities include fighter interdiction, attack, air superiority, defense suppression, airlift, air refueling, reconnaissance, close air support, and combat search and rescue.
LFEs would probably take place 10 days per year for four hours per day. Sonic booms, low-flying (500 feet above ground level) aircraft, chaff and flares would be new aspects of the training. No live-ammunition exercises would take place, according to the proposal.
Pilots, ranchers, tribes worry
"Our primary concern with this airspace change is safety, and we want to ensure that measures other than 'see and avoid' are in place to minimize the risk of general-aviation aircraft inadvertently and unknowingly having airspace conflicts with fast-moving military aircraft," said Jonathan Harger, a government advocacy specialist for the Experimental Aircraft Association.
"We also have serious concerns about flight training, ag spraying, and recreational aircraft operations that might be negatively affected,” he said in a written statement.
Pilot and South Dakota aviation historian Norma Kraemer testified to Meade County commissioners that most of Ellsworth’s training missions to date have been undertaken on public property; in contrast, the proposal heralds flights over places where people reside and conduct agricultural operations to earn their livings.
“My concerns as a pilot, and ranchers’ concerns, are that the Air Force would be overreaching on the training and impacting the people who manage to do things for ourselves, and they’re going to make that harder for people on the ground.
“They have been flying mostly on Bureau of Land Management land, and this is primarily private and tribal land. The Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes would be smack in the middle of this,” she said.
According to the draft environmental impact statement, cultural resources would be affected by subsonic or supersonic noise from low‐level flights, which also “would have a startle effect.”
The document states that locations such as Devils Tower, Bear Butte, and Deadwood would not be flown over at altitudes below 18,000 feet “and should not be impacted except by an infrequent thunder‐like sonic boom.”
Flights could interfere with tribal ceremonies, it says, adding, “During government‐to‐government consultations, tribal members regularly cited their concerns that low‐level overflights with both noise and visual effects would intrude upon their ceremonies and quests.
“Air Force representatives assured the tribal members that, when told of a specific location to avoid, the Air Force would establish reasonable avoidance areas to protect the privacy of participants.”
During consultations, Native Americans from the four directly impacted reservations explained that low-level flights and intrusive noise would be detrimental to their cultural practices. “The change in setting created by increased noise and low level-training overflights could be seen as having a significant impact to Native American reservations,” the draft states.
Amish and Hutterite settlements under the proposal could be similarly impacted, it notes, adding, “The Air Force would establish reasonable temporary or seasonal avoidance areas or could adopt other measures identified in government‐to‐government consultation with affected tribes to reduce intrusive impacts.
Eighty‐six species of wildlife of special concern (24 birds, seven mammals, eight fish, eight reptiles and amphibians, and 38 plants) may occur in counties under the proposal, including bats and waterfowl, according to the draft.
“Anyone who has a concern about nature as we know it had better get out their pens and write to the FAA,” said Meade County rancher Marvin Kammerer, who testified at the county commission meeting.
“In the last several years, we’ve had bad fires from this base,” he said, in contrast to the draft environmental statement, which says, “The potential for fire as a result of Air Force activity is minimal and not considered a significant risk to wildlife habitat quality or quantity.”
Kammerer and others at the meeting complained that federal bureaucracy and gaps in cellular phone service areas impede reporting range fires.
“You cannot call the Air Force without going through recorded menus, and when you get a live one, maybe he isn’t any help to you,” he said.
He sustained that the motive for the proposal is to avoid a closure of the base, which is the area’s largest employer. “No base has ever been closed because of lack of space to fly,” he said. Closed bases are usually replaced by private sector projects, he added.
Rancher Craig Shaver testified that the proposed enlargement area encompasses rangeland that is healthy enough to keep a cow-calf pair on every 20 acres, compared to the 100-to-150 acres needed elsewhere. “Why would we put this burden on productive land, when we have billions of acres that’s not?” he queried.
The draft environmental impact statement affirms that the majority of the land to be included would be cattle range.
The U.S. government has exclusive sovereignty over the nation’s airspace, it notes.
The FAA study can be consulted at www.ellsworth.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-140320-056.pdf
Comments must be submitted to: Manager, Operations Support Group, ATO Central Service Center, AJV-C2, Airspace Study 14-AGL-06NR, Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, 2601 Meacham Blvd., Fort Worth, Texas.
(Contact Talli Nauman NSN Health and Environment Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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