The U.S. Air Force announced on Wednesday that it is walking back a proposal to establish a vast training area for low-altitude flying over the mountains of Colorado, including the Aspen area.
Local groups, including environmental organizations and the Pitkin County commissioners, were questioning the proposal, and at the very least calling for a more thorough evaluation of the impacts a low-altitude training area would have on wildlife, tourism, avalanche safety and other concerns.
The plan would have allowed military aircraft, including cargo planes and the airplane-helicopter Osprey hybrid, to fly as low as 300 feet above the ground over a 60,700-square-mile area including the Elk, Sawatch and San Juan mountains. The plan would have allowed up to three training missions a night over the zone, which included New Mexico.
The Air Force is now officially “taking a step back” and “re-evaluating” the plan, according to 1st Lt. Stephanie Schonberger, a public affairs officer with Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the flights would be based. The Air Force wants to make sure the plan meets the military’s changing training needs, and that it is responsive to the concerns raised in the more than 1,600 comments the proposal generated last fall, during a public comment period for the draft environmental assessment on the low-altitude training area, Schonberger said.
The Air Force could come back with an amended proposal, a new environmental assessment, or begin a process for a more thorough environmental impact statement, Schonberger said. But none of that would occur before 2013, she said. She added that all the comments received will be carried forward if the plan is revived.
A statement from Sen. Mark Udall’s office characterized the military’s move as an “indefinite delay.”
“It’s our understanding that the Air Force is reassessing if they are going to come back with another plan at all,” said Udall spokesman Mike Saccone. Udall has been working on the issue since mid-2010, when the Air Force announced plans for the training area.
According to a statement from Udall released minutes after the Air Force sent out its announcement, “I appreciate the Air Force’s decision to not move forward at this time with its Low Altitude Tactical Navigation training based on the feedback it received from community members in southern Colorado, the central mountains and the Four Corners region. We need to make sure the Air Force’s training plans are crafted in consultation with the military in Colorado and the communities they would affect. ...
“I want to ensure that pilots and crews receive the training they need to perform their combat missions, but this training plan needed to be better coordinated with local communities and other airspace users,” Udall said in the statement.
The northern reaches of the proposed training area included Pitkin County. County commissioners here were among the individuals and organizations that submitted comments last fall.
Among county commissioners’ prime concerns was that the draft environmental assessment lacked clarification as to how the low-altitude flights would impact wilderness and roadless areas, and lands being considered for additional environmental protections. The commissioners requested that the plan be amended to specifically state that training flights above these areas be no less than 2,000 feet above the ground.
Commissioners also called for a more thorough analysis on the impact the over-flights would have on elk, mule deer and black bears.
Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop was one of 17 Colorado environmental groups that sent a 30-page joint letter to the Air Force raising numerous issues with both the substance of the proposal and the process. The environmental assessment was short on the detail it provided on impacts, the range of aircraft that would be used, as well as the need for the new training area, according to the letter.
“Unlike most site-specific actions where significance depends mostly on effects to a localized and relatively small area, this proposal would affect a much broader set of interests,” the letter, dated Nov. 4, 2011, says. “Correspondingly, it will require a much more thorough analysis to determine the significance of potential impacts. That analysis must be undertaken in an [environmental impact statement].”
With 1,600 comments and a wide recognition that the low-altitude training plan had numerous unanswered questions, Wilderness Workshop conservation advocate Will Roush said Wednesday’s development was an example of the government’s public-input process working.
“We’re thrilled about that and thankful for the people who took the time to submit 1,600 comments,” Roush said. If the plan is in fact not revived, “I think we are joining a number of other folks in being happy that we won’t have low-flying military jets flying over our heads.”