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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Air by Force

Air Date: Week of

The U.S. Air Force wants to expand its testing range in southwestern Idaho, adding more jet flights and often their accompanying sonic booms. A coalition of ranchers, hunters and environmentalists is working against the expansion in areas they want to keep wild. Jyl Hoyt reports.


CURWOOD: One of the most barren and roadless places in the United States can be found where Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho meet. The region is called the Owyhee Badlands, and its vast emptiness makes it a favorite refuge for backcountry enthusiasts, and for Air Force pilots. For years the United States Air Force has flown practice bombing runs over the area, and now it wants to expand its existing combat range and increase the number of flights and sonic booms. As Jyl Hoyt as member station KBSU in Boise reports, the plan has united ranchers, environmentalists, and hunters in opposition.

(Flowing water, a splash)

HOYT: A group of canoeists make their way through a river carved deep into the Owyhee canyon lands located in the remote corners of Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon. This high desert volcanic plateau is crisscrossed with rivers and trails, some of which are part of the Federal Wild and Scenic River System. The government estimates 41,000 people hike, hunt, kayak, and canoe here each year. People like Idaho photographer Steve Bly.

BLY: The canyon is just so colorful and so beautiful, and so much light and the lichen and the greens and the yellows and the oranges, where we camped out last night it was just one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.

(Sounds underwater)

HOYT: But the area is also part of 6,800 square miles of air space the military uses to train fighter jet pilots. As a low-flying jet comes swooping down the canyon, canoeist Phil Lansing shakes an angry fist.

LANSING: The sound of freedom, my flat foot. It's the sound of boondoggle. For them to say that they need this additional training space is just absolutely comes right off the stable floor.

HOYT: For the fourth time in 7 years the Air Force is asking for more air space here. The Air Force hopes to turn 12,000 acres of Federally owned desert into targets for dummy bombs. They also hope to install 30 more radar stations that mimic enemy activity. All this overland that includes 22 wilderness study areas and nominations for 2 more wild and scenic rivers.

(Water sounds. Woman: "There's a camp!")

HOYT: River runners and others are attracted to the desert by its rich archaeological sites, some almost 12,000 years old. There are herds of pronghorn antelope and numerous sage grass, a species that is declining in Idaho and much of the American west. As she rounds a bend, canoeist Wendy Wilson of Idaho Rivers United grabs her binoculars and scans a 6-foot-high cliff.

WILSON: There's three, uh, female bighorn sheep and two lambs getting to the top. Oh, now they're looking at us. Look! She's looking right down at us. What we're concerned about is low-level supersonic flights because the sonic booms are so startling we think we --we could lose some sheep off of the cliffs.

HOYT: That's already happening according to Robert DiGrazzia of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. This national hunting group says California bighorn populations near Deep Creek have declined recently. Mr. DiGrazzia blames the Air Force composite wing that recently moved to Idaho.

DiGRAZZIA: The population dropped from 700 down to 350. And the reason why is that the Air Force fingerprint for supersonic is right over the top of that.

HOYT: Biologists say sonic booms and increased over flights may be the problem, but suggest other reasons for the bighorn decline. There was a drought, lots of human activity, and scientists transplanted female bighorns to other areas hoping to expand herds.

(A water sprinkler)

HOYT: Cindy Bachman's ranch is in the middle of the latest Air Force proposal. As she moves irrigation pipes across hay fields and rounds up cattle on Federal lands she leases, Ms. Bachman is sometimes startled by sonic booms. She dreads the thought of having her solitude disturbed even more.

BACHMAN: Two times I've been horseback when a sonic boom went off and both times my horse tried to jump out from underneath me. And in the Bruno Valley our dishes rattle, our windows rattle. So it's just not acceptable at this point.

(People milling. Man: "Oh -- basically what we are proposing to do is take the current airspace, fill in the gaps...")

HOYT: The Air Force is mounting a sophisticated public relations campaign to persuade people that its latest proposal is acceptable. In school auditoriums and libraries, dozens of officers stand by crisp, colored maps. They wear unusually big smiles as they greet sportsmen, river runners, ranchers, and business people. At this meeting in Mountain Home, air space manager Ken Apple takes apart a 3-dimensional model to explain how pilots need more air space so they can better learn how to dodge enemy radar.

APPLE: As you can see it's fairly complicated and fairly difficult for a pilot who's flying 480 knots, that's 4 miles a minute, to keep track of exactly where he is in there. And that's why we want to fill all that in and make it just one piece of air space.

HOYT: The Air Force plan would add 500 flights to the 12,000 flown last year. A thousand of them, about 8%, would be supersonic. But Colonel Bill Richie says noise would actually be diluted because the air space will increase.

RICHIE: With the increase in more usable air space, the -- the ability to see an airplane or hear an airplane should be less for any one particular area.

HOYT: Opponents want the Air Force to use existing training ranges in Utah and Nevada. Colonel Richie says these ranges are adequate for jet pilots, but they're just too far away.

RICHIE: Any time we have to fly further than we are going to train, and spend more time flying to get there than we do to training, it's not economically feasible.

HOYT: The first 2 plans were beaten back by citizen opposition. The third was rejected by the courts. The Air Force says this fourth plan is more acceptable because it's asking for less additional land. Opponents say this proposal is part of a military land grab. They point to 3 Air Force basis in Utah and Nevada also trying to expand. They say population pressures in the east and increased use of Federal lands for recreation in the west are making the military nervous and eager to secure land for the future. Robert DiGrazzia of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep.

DiGRAZZIA: What we see on a national basis is a lot of little actions that are being pieced together that are causing a lot of Americans their freedoms to use public lands. The Air Force is doing these, these issues in little parcels, because they're trying to hide the total impact.

HOYT: The Air Force says that's simply not true, and that they're considering doing a study to evaluate their need for air space. In a state where the military is the second largest source of employment, there is a lot of support for the plan.

(People milling.)

HOYT: At the Air Force public meeting in Mountain Home, a town just 10 miles from the air base, most people like contractor and Air Force veteran John Gross say the military can easily balance the needs of the environment with the pilot's need for realistic combat training.

GROSS: I'm in favor of that range based on the fact that we need to give our military the proper training and the tools to do it with. And that range out there is just another tool that we need to give them.

HOYT: The Air Force plans to present its environmental impact statement for citizen comment in 1997. Ultimately, Congress has to rule on the plan. Idaho's Congressional delegation has given its tacit support. For Living on Earth I'm Jyl Hoyt in Boise, Idaho.



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