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BoCC asks for EIS on military flight proposal

On the heels of a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) that presented a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for low-altitude training flights over portions of southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico by aircraft from Cannon Air Force Base, the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners have requested that a full Environment Impact Statement (EIS) be completed.

The FONSI, dated August 2011, states that no EIS is required for the proposed action (an overview of which is included below) to take place.

However, the county, through the approval of a letter in response to the EA during a Tuesday special meeting, joined a number of other counties requesting that a full EIS be prepared before any low-altitude training flights are carried out.

Cannon Air Force Base, located near Clovis, New Mexico, is home to the 27 Special Operations Wing (27 SOW), and has proposed to designate a low-altitude training area in northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, reaching as far north as Aspen.

The proposed training zone includes at least portions of 20 Colorado counties.

In the draft EA document, the Air Force proposes that the training area would allow for crews to “train for worldwide operations under their global response commitment.”

The statement continues, explaining that MC-1301J and CV-22 aircraft rely on “darkness, terrain, and low altitude to provide masking during missions. 27 SOW aircrews are required to maintain flight proficiency in varying terrain including mountainous terrain, varying threat levels, different climatic conditions, and low altitude after dark missions to support Special Operations Forces.”

Under the plan, aircrews would fly low-altitude routes in areas of mountainous terrain, including at high elevations, “to ensure that aircraft power capabilities are not compromised and that the crew avoids potentially hazardous situations.”

The plan further proposes three missions per flying day (equating to 688 missions per year) that would depart Cannon AFB at dusk, and fly for missions lasting approximately five hours.

The flights would be pre-planned and would include about 30 route segments per mission, as well as simulate dropping and retrieving personal supplies, participate in low altitude refueling and perform other training activities, according to the document.

The EA states that there would be no significant impact in the following areas — airspace management, noise, airspace safety, air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, land use and recreation, socioeconomics and environmental justice.

Additionally, the plan notes that population centers would be avoided.

In the letter, the BoCC comments that an EIS should be completed to give the county the information to assess the impacts to the county and residents before a decision is made to allow the training flights to take place over Archuleta County.

In a later interview, Commissioner Chair Clifford Lucero said no formal decision is required to allow the flights to take place, indicating that the flights may take place regardless of local preference.

The letter from the BoCC also requests that flights avoid the population centers of Pagosa Springs, Chromo and Arboles.

Before approving the comment letter, all three commissioners expressed concern over the flight training.

Commissioner Steve Wadley commented first, noting that flights that are not highly publicized and that occur at night may worry residents and that it would also be prudent to ask for a full environmental study.

Lucero, the next to comment, highlighted a number of potential impacts, including to wildlife and the environment, and echoed Wadley’s comments that a full study should be requested.

The last to comment, Commissioner Michael Whiting, said any environmental impacts could turn into economic impacts in tourist locations, where tourism relies on the tranquility and lack of noise and disturbance in the area.

Whiting added that he believes the initial impact study was not sufficient and Air Force personnel should, “go out of their way” to avoid environmental and economic impacts.

The 224-page EA document is available for download at www.cannon.af.mil.

Also at the Tuesday special meeting, the BoCC approved another letter of support for legislation aiming to designate Chimney Rock Archeological Site as a national monument.

County Administrator Greg Schulte said the letter was in response to a request from Rep. Scott Tipton’s office.

The legislation is slated for a subcommittee hearing that begins today at 8 a.m. MST.

The specific Chimney Rock legislation expected to be heard at the House Natural Resources Committee National Parks, Forest and Public Lands Subcommittee meeting is H.R. 2621.

“I am pleased that the Chimney Rock National Monument Establishment Act is being given the opportunity for a legislative hearing, and encouraged by the progress that we have made toward giving one of Colorado’s most significant historic and cultural treasures the status and recognition it deserves,” Tipton said in a press release.

In the BoCC’s letter of support, it is stated that the national monument designation would bring national attention to the area and serve as a “significant economic driver.”

“Our community is very excited about the prospect of the National Monument designation and is looking forward to the completion of the management plan as soon as possible,” the letter states.

At the Tuesday meeting, each of the commissioners voiced support for the measure.

Because of the Nov. 1 election, the regular meeting of the BoCC scheduled for Tuesday was moved to Nov. 8. It is set to begin at 1:30 p.m.

A regularly scheduled BoCC meeting will take place on Nov. 15, also at 1:30 p.m.

randi@pagosasun.com

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