Sunday, November 5, 2017

Holloman Air Force Base plan stirs outcry in Silver City, New Mexico

SILVER CITY – Rebecca Margolis and her husband Dale chose to retire in this tiny town near the Gila National Forest for the fresh air and quiet beauty.

Now they’re among residents who worry that a proposal to adjust the airspace used by Holloman Air Force Base for F-16 pilot training will mean supersonic jets flying overhead.

“We moved here from San Diego, a highly militarized town, and we really thought living on the edge of the vast Gila Wilderness was protection from all that,” Rebecca Margolis said.

The proposal for “Special Use Airspace Optimization at Holloman AFB” is part of the Air Force’s larger effort to examine “legacy” airspace to ensure it meets modern day training needs, including the newest F-16 fighter jets.

“They can see out further. They have weapons systems that reach out further than the airplanes we had in the past,” said Alan Shafer, lead airspace analyst at Air Force headquarters.

The process has started with Holloman because of its importance to the Air Force, he said.

“Holloman Air Force Base is a critical node in the production of fighter pilots,” Shafer said.

The proposal to extend flights deeper into the Gila National Forest and closer to Silver City has led to a loud outcry in the quiet community.

“I’m a former veteran, and they can find other places. They don’t need to come into this pristine area,” said Ted Presler, a Silver City resident who runs a theater group.

The proposal to adjust the air space requires an environmental impact analysis that includes public comment from those living in the region. That “scoping period” ended Sept. 25.

‘Terrible job’

“They’ve done a really terrible job, in my opinion, of providing adequate information to the public to really understand what they’re really proposing,” said Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition. “What about all of the wildlife in the Gila? We’ve got 3.1 million acres of forest and within that we have two wilderness areas.”

Holloman Air Force Base held open house public meetings in Truth or Consequences, Las Cruces and Carlsbad, the site of a second proposal to expand airspace, but did not schedule one in Silver City.

State Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, in a letter to Holloman Air Force Base, said he is concerned that Silver City – “the most populated area in the Gila which would be most affected by the addition of thousands of F-16 flights” – was not selected as a site for a public meeting on the proposed expansion of air space.

“The economy of Silver City and the surrounding areas is heavily dependent on people visiting the Gila from all over the world,” he wrote.

“The goal here is to reach as many people as possible,” said Robin Divine, an environmental scientist with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

Divine said open house meetings were scheduled in locations to allow the most people to participate.

“We already have a good handle based on the comments we have received,” Divine said. “We take in that input. We look at those areas of concerns that the public is bringing forward.”

Public session

Holloman has scheduled an informational meeting for the Grant County Board of Commissioners on Nov. 14 at the request of the New Mexico congressional delegation, Shafer said.

The public will not have an opportunity to speak, but residents can still use the website set up to accept comments electronically or send comments by mail during the environmental impact analysis period, which continues through next spring and will be followed by hearings.

“Even though the official comment period is over, we’re still going to review comments that are submitted to us because we want to know what’s important to the people out there across New Mexico,” Shafer said.

Gila National Forest personnel are among those weighing in on the proposal during the official comment period. A letter signed by forest manager Adam Mendoca asks Holloman to consider the need to protect wilderness characteristics, including “outstanding opportunities for solitude.”

“It’s very important when you go out and have your wilderness experience that you don’t have that encroachment from the noise,” said Marta Call, Gila National Forest public affairs officer.

Holloman and Fort Bliss aircraft currently fly over the western edge of the forest. The letter requests that the Air Force maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet over the entire Gila and limit training flights during the week from March to December, the peak season for outdoor recreation.

Silver City residents said they are concerned that expanding the air space will not only affect the environment, but also the local economy.

“We’ve been able over the last 20 years to diversify our economy and bring in retirees, expand our tourism and outdoor recreation industry,” Siwik said, “so this will have huge impacts on real estate, on the people who want to retire here, on outdoor recreation.”

Original article can be found here ➤

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