Native Sun News: Tribes protest expansion of military fly zone

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 expanding an airspace training area over four reservations in Montana and South Dakota. VIEW: Larger Map

Tribes protest fly zone expansion
Northern Cheyenne attempt to block largest-ever airspace training range
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

LAME DEER, Mont. –– In the wake of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval of what could become the largest military training airspace over the continental United States, the Northern Cheyenne Nation still hopes to block the proposal, tribal Development Director Steve Small told the Native Sun News on March 27.

The FAA approved the four-fold expansion of the U.S. Air Force Powder River Training Complex on March 24, to allow large-force exercises with B-1 and B-52 bombers in an area half the size of the state of South Dakota, including land under the jurisdictions of the Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Standing Rock Sioux, and Cheyenne River Sioux Indian tribes.

“We’re very disappointed in that decision, and not just the tribe,” Small said. “It’s going to disturb the peace, the flora and the fauna,” he said.

All four affected Northern Plains tribes have raised objections since 2008 in negotiations with the Air Force 28th Bombardment Wing on the proposal to extend the geographical area of bomber training missions currently operating out of Ellsworth Air Force Base in western South Dakota and Minot Air Force Base in central North Dakota.

“They didn’t seem to listen to the adversity, so we’re going to appeal,” Small said. The Northern Cheyenne hope to receive support from the Montana Congressional delegation for an injunction and action to change the decision, he said.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Sen. Steve Daines have opposed the expansion of the training area over Montana, which would join the states of North Dakota, Wyoming and South Dakota in ceding airspace to create the 35,000-square-mile project as approved.

“I'm extremely disappointed the FAA is greenlighting this expansion in the face of real concerns and opposition on the ground,” Tester said in a written statement March 24. However, he stopped short of declaring continued opposition.

“I will hold the Air Force and the FAA accountable as this expansion moves forward to ensure the training complex doesn't negatively impact general aviation, agriculture production or energy development,” he said after speaking with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta about the decision.

South Dakota’s Congressional delegation held a media conference on March 27 to celebrate the FAA decision.

“After nearly nine years working with the Air Force on this important expansion project, we’re not only going to see savings to the tune of $23 million a year at Ellsworth, but we’re also going to offer better training opportunities to our airmen—increasing readiness across the Air Force,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune said in a written release.

The Air Force says the expansion would provide more opportunities with less travel to far off ranges, boosting local training from the current levels of 50 percent to approximately 85 percent. It considers this to mean “significant fuel savings, which would be used to improve both training quality and quantity and thereby achieve greater efficiency.”

According to the Department of Defense authorized news outlet Stars and Stripes, Col. Kevin Kennedy, 28th Bomb Wing commander, said in a statement that the expansion will “greatly improve the training opportunities and readiness of Ellsworth and Minot aircrews.”

The largest training airspace expansion in U.S. history, it would save Ellsworth Air Force Base up to $23 million per year, according to Thune.

Pat Burchill, chairman of Rapid City-based South Dakota Ellsworth Development Authority, credited Thune with the approval. “The Powder River Training Complex expansion wouldn’t have been possible without the relentless efforts of Senator Thune in the face of numerous obstacles,” Burchill said.

He called the approval “great news not only for Rapid City, but certainly also for South Dakota and our national defense.”

South Dakota U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds said completion of the project would solidify “the critical role Ellsworth plays – and will continue to play – in military readiness and national defense.”

South Dakota U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem said she is “beyond pleased that after all these years we can close this deal and open new air space to train those defending our freedom and values. It’s something I worked hard on as a member of the House Armed Services Committee last Congress,” she added.

Constituents in the Rapid City-based Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association have worked in opposition to the deal, joining the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council and the Coalition of Large Tribes in July in an alliance supporting the position of the Northern Cheyenne Nation.

Native Americans in the Ellsworth Air Force Base sphere had hundreds of acres confiscated during World War II for a bombing practice range. When they got it returned after a 40-year fight, it was filled with dangerous, unexploded bombs.

They requested the Air Force choose the most environmentally friendly option available in the EPA impact statement for the project, which was the “no-action” alternative, and consisted of no expansion, according to the statement itself.

Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council Executive Director Cheryl Belcourt said the Northern Cheyenne were among those who “were especially disheartened” by the FAA decision.

The tribe has opposed the expansion on every level, ranging from the spiritual to the economic, according to Small. He said he agrees with the need for military protection but not with more war-games that interfere with peacekeeping.

“How much is it going to improve the protection of our being?” he asked. “How does it really help our nation and our Northern Cheyenne Nation?

“We go for our vision quests; we have a lot of ceremonies out in nature here. This is our church. Flying through it with a jet, with helicopters and gunships is not conducive to spirituality. I mean how can you play war-games in a church? And that’s what that’s all about.”

He reiterated the argument that the pollution from the aircraft would jeopardize the federal Class I Air Quality status that the tribe has zealously guarded against fossil fuel exploitation and other encroachment. He recalled the crash of a jet near Broadus as a harbinger of future accidents.

Rancher Marvin Kammerer, whose family homesteaded land adjacent to what came to be Ellsworth Air Force Base, told the Native Sun News that 36 people have died in plane crashes on his spread over the years since the base began operations.

The most recent major crash in the Powder River Training Complex occurred near Broadus, Montana, when a B1-B and crew out of Ellsworth went down in 2013. No fatalities resulted, however private pasture land burned, and damage to the jet totaled $317.7 million, according to U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command Public Affairs.

Kammerer noted that Native Americans, non-Indian rural residents, commercial and private pilots have a similar stake in a class action lawsuit being discussed by people the training range prospect would affect. “It’s a process and it’s not over,” Kammerer said. “There’s a good chance we’ll end up going to court for takings of property rights without compensation.”

Private pilot and South Dakota aviation historian Norma Kraemer said the Air Force responded to several requests made by people who would be affected, before the FAA approved the project. “Now it’s time to move on,” she said.

However, she noted, “They’re not good neighbors.” Chaff and flares dropped in lieu of bombs, as planned by the Air Force, remain a big concern, due to the potential to start wildfires far from official emergency first responders, she said.

Low-flying civilian and military aircraft could collide in the training zone, because they both would operate at a 500-foot altitude, below the radar detection screen, she argued.

“South Dakota isn’t impacted as much as the people in Montana, which is the biggest area where they would be working,” Kraemer told the Native Sun News. “South Dakota is just the path to get there.”

Small emphasized that part of the Northern Cheyenne economy depends on ranching, with 15,000 head of cattle and herds of wild horses that would be affected by sonic booms.

In addition, the Northern Cheyenne Nation is trying to develop a tourism sector with guided tours and outdoor activities, such as camping, picnicking and hiking. With 2,400 vehicles a day traveling through the reservation on the main thoroughfare of Highway 212, the tribal government could raise income for the community with a bus tour to an historic buffalo jump and a guided nature trail walk, he said.

“People who come from the big city already see these jets flying all over the place. It’s a tranquil place to come to, and how can you do it with these jets coming in?” he said. “It’s just going to ruin that whole aspect of life and that tangent of our economy.”

(Contact Talli Nauman NSN Health and Environment Editor at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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