Friday, September 23, 2011

Air Force’s Plan for Low-Altitude Training Flights Draws Criticism at Santa Fe Meeting

Santa Feans didn’t exactly show up en masse Thursday night at Santa Fe Community College to offer their views on an Air Force plan to create a low-altitude tactical navigation area in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

But those who did come delivered a clear message: There are big problems with a recent draft environmental assessment of the plan.

That assessment, which concluded that nighttime flights out of Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis would have “no significant impact” on the environment, needs, at the very least, more research and analysis, according to many of the meeting’s nearly two dozen attendees.

Ongoing concerns range from noise and recreation to tourism, wildlife, ranching, public health and fires.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Kathy Holian worried about a decline in recreational tourism in reaction to the flights.

“I can just imagine if we have a tourist who comes here and has an encounter of the LATN kind,” Holian mused. “I can imagine that tourist would immediately leave the area if they could. They would not want to come back to Santa Fe and they would tell their friends not to come back to Santa Fe.”

The flyover plan has been in the works for over a year. Air Force officials noted they’ve made some adjustments to accommodate local frustrations.

Planes will fly at a minimum of 300 feet instead of 200 feet, for instance. And a revised map cuts out northern New Mexico’s population corridor along the Rio Grande from Albuquerque through Santa Fe to Taos and also exempts eastern Colorado, including Colorado Springs, Pueblo and the plains to the east.

Las Vegas, Santa Rosa, Farmington, Tucumcari and Clovis remain in the flight area.

Col. Kirk Smith, vice commander in charge of Cannon’s special operations, said the flights over local terrain would provide vital training for pilots who must be “prepared to do whatever mission they are told to do.” Under the current proposal, there would be a maximum of 688 flights a year, or three missions a night.

“We absolutely understand safety concerns and impact. It is important to us that we execute our training very safely and it is important to us that we minimize the impact to communities and the environment,” he said.

Smith also emphasized that a final decision on the assessment won’t be made until after a 60-day public comment period, which ends Nov. 5.

A finding of “no significant impact” would allow the flights to proceed without a more extensive environmental impact statement that could take years.

Several of Thursday’s attendees said the comment period is inadequate and the Air Force should extend it by at least another two months. Some said the military failed to provide sufficient notice or publicity for the handful of meetings held this week in northern New Mexico.

Lauren Reichelt, director of Health and Human Services for Rio Arriba County, said local government officials should have been informed about meetings so they could help spread the word among rural and hard-to-reach residents.

“We’re very frustrated up there. It seems like it’s always Rio Arriba County that gets chosen for this kind of activity,” Reichelt said.

“I believe Rio Arriba is chosen because it’s relatively poor and it’s hard for us to respond. We don’t have the state legislature here. We don’t have the lab. So it’s easy to choose Rio Arriba County to do your flyover exercises over,” she said.

The Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Taos county commissions and the Taos Town Council and Las Vegas City Council have all passed resolutions opposing the flyovers. Santa Fe’s City Council supports the plan.

Richard Robinson was the only member of the public to voice support for the flyovers during a formal public comment session Thursday. A retired Air Force officer with a son in the service, Robinson said the country is engaged in war operations “whether we like it or not” and the specialized training being proposed may make a difference in whether a soldier returns home.

And that’s worth any inconvenience suffered by area residents, according to Robinson.

“I’m sure there is nobody in this room who would begrudge any other parent the safe return of a son or daughter from combat,” he said.

A dozen more meetings on the draft assessment will be held around northern New Mexico and Colorado over the next month.

http://www.abqjournal.com

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