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Native Sun News: Tribes question proposal to expand air training

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

The U.S. military is proposing to expand an airspace training area over four reservations. VIEW: Larger Map

Tribes eye Air Force war-games
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE — The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is giving the public until April 3 to submit letters of comment on the military’s proposal to expand its Powder River Basin airspace training area over four Great Plains Indian reservations and adjacent ancestral lands.

The Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes, as well as the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux tribes, have been in negotiations since 2008 with the 28th Bomb Wing on its proposal to extend the geographical area for current B-1 bomber training missions operating out of Ellsworth Air Force Base in western South Dakota and B-52 bombers 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 (EIS) on a 35,000 square-mile range for large-scale bomber and fighter jet exercises.

The FAA announced the new comment period to members of its mailing list after South Dakota Sen. John Thune urged FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to expedite the permitting process earlier this year.

The expansion of the current Powder River Training Complex (PRTC) would quadruple its area, making it the equivalent of half the size of the entire state of South Dakota -- and the largest terrestrial training airspace over the continental United States.

The Air Force says the expansion would save money and provide environmental benefits. It would enable so-called Large-Force Exercises (LFEs), in which multiple aircraft and crews train together, creating mock combat scenarios. 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.

However, no live-fire exercises would take place in this complex, according to the proposal. Tribal members have expressed concern that low-altitude overflight could affect religious ceremonies or sensitive locations, the draft impact statement summary said. The Air Force has stated it would adopt reasonable avoidance measures identified in consultation with affected tribes.

“The Northern Cheyenne and Crow Reservations have the highest concentration of minority, low income, and children in the region. Even infrequent low-level overflights of these populations could result in disproportionate impacts,” the draft statement noted.

The tribes also voiced members’ concerns over contamination and accidental damages.

Northern Cheyenne Tribe comments following hearings
Following the hearings for the draft impact statement, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, based in Lame Deer, Montana, requested that the Air Force “consider a no-action alternative… that would eliminate the expansion of training airspace.”

In a letter from former tribal President Leroy A. Spang, the tribe expressed its desire for training flights to avoid the reservations, Bear Butte, and Bear’s Lodge (Devils Tower).

“We are very concerned with the potential emissions, such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide… and other toxics from the jet trail and their long term negative effects on human health,” it said.

The tribe requested that the reservation’s top-notch air quality and visibility, established in a 1977 designation as a Class I Airshed, be protected by an Air Force analysis of the pollution increments of proposed increased air traffic prior to completion of a final impact statement.

The letter warned of increased fire danger from flares deployed in training. “Potential fire concerns affect the total environment of the reservation, from quality of water, fish, wildlife, plant fauna, to the people who live here,” it said.

“The EIS should examine this in detail, given the large area covered by the project, the limited resources of the reservation to combat PRTC-caused fires, and the importance of a quick response time to protect tribal resources, including timber in the hot, dry Montana summer weather,” it added.

“Noise pollution is a significant concern,” it continued. “Sonic booms would be highly disruptive to the tribal communities on and near the reservation. Noise pollution can disrupt normal activities such as sleep, prayer, ceremonies, and other traditional day-to-day activities.

“Tribal members have told us that they choose to live on the reservation (rather than urban areas) because of the peace and quiet that life here provides, particularly when outside in the hills, valleys and forests for fishing, hunting, gathering berries and medicinal plants, and participating in traditional ceremonies and family gatherings.”

The Air Force proposes to limit supersonic flights to 10 days of Large-Force Exercises per year, at which time an average of one sonic boom per day would be experienced by people anywhere under the airspace. The LFE dates would be published in advance, according to the proposal.

The Northern Cheyenne letter requested that the final EIS analyze the noise impact of single events such as flyovers or sonic booms.

Also, for the tribe, “The threat of air traffic accidents is a serious concern.” It said, “The PRTC would conflict with and jeopardize current air traffic over the reservation, such as by ranchers who own planes.” It also would affect plans for a reservation airport, a consideration in local economic development.

Air Force guarantees no surprise attacks
The Air Force proposes a schedule to advise people of low-level training flights. For the most part, they would not be from Friday noon through Monday morning or weekdays from noon to 6 p.m., according to the proposal.

It says that, on an average of six to nine times a year, people could experience military flights at 2,000 feet or less from ground level within one-quarter of a nautical mile.

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe said the EIS should examine how the expanded training activities would affect wildlife, already threatened by habitat encroachment from coal bed methane and other energy development near the reservation.

“Deer, elk and other land animals are vital to the subsistence and ceremonial existence of tribal members, and we cannot afford to have additional pressures on these resources,” the tribe said.

The letter claimed that “the spirituality of the Northern Cheyenne people will be compromised by the PRTC,” adding, “The reservation and surrounding area is considered one contiguous cultural landscape. Prayers, ceremonies and other spiritual activities would be significantly and adversely affected by the noise, visual and other likely impacts of the PRTC.”

It adds that “the social and economic impacts are far reaching,” concluding that the project could cause accidents that would set back the tribe’s efforts to overcome poverty and develop successful enterprises providing jobs and income.

Private and commercial aircraft operators, including emergency aid deliverers, are worried about increased air traffic from the proposal.

The Air Force says its aims to “adequately train aircrews and ensure their readiness to succeed and survive in combat.”

It says upgrades to the B1 bombers, based at Ellsworth, require crew training in the aircraft’s new capabilities for target acquisition, communication and networking, laser targeting, optical target tracking, and smart weapons.

In addition, the operating areas available for the B-1s and the B-52s from Minot are either not configured for current training requirements, too distant, or too heavily scheduled, it says.

Expansion also would allow new use of the range by squadrons of aircraft such as F15-Es, F-16s and RC-135s.

It would remove the prohibition on training with chaff, flares, and supersonic operations, in order to make simulated combat more like the real thing.

More training opportunities in the PRTC would mean less travel to far off training ranges, boosting local training from the current levels of 50 percent to approximately 85 percent, if the 28th Bomb Wing gets its wish.

It considers this a “significant fuel savings, which would be used to improve both training quality and quantity and thereby achieve greater efficiency.”

Comments may be submitted by mail to:
Manager, Operation Support Group, ATO Central Service Center, AJV-C2
Airspace Study 14-AGL-06NR
Department of Transportation
Federal Aviation Administration
2601 Meacham Blvd.
Fort Worth, TX 76137

(Contact Talli Nauman, Health and Environment Editor at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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