Flying the Unfriendly Skies of America

June 1, 2000

Military aircrews training for possible combat missions overseas are running into intense–and growing–flak right here at home. The Air Force particularly but also the Navy now face a barrage of lawsuits, public protests, and political pressure from environmentalists, landowners, and outdoor enthusiasts. These groups are mounting vigorous opposition to the kind of realistic tactical air training that the services consider essential to maintaining their combat edge.

The opposition, which is aimed primarily at low-altitude flights and practice bombing missions, could cause the imposition of new restrictions on, or outright loss of, access to some of the military’s most valuable training areas and ranges, particularly in the West.

Among the most threatening of recent developments was the filing, on Jan. 27 in Washington, of a sweeping federal civil lawsuit against the Air Force and the Defense Department. In the suit, a coalition of 11 environmental and citizens groups, led by the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability and the Center for Biological Diversity, challenge all of USAF’s nationwide military flying training routes.

The plaintiffs seek to prevent the Air Force from “establishing any new low-level flight training route or area, … expanding or otherwise modifying any existing low-level flight training route or area, … or continuing to conduct any low-level training operations in any existing low-level flight training route or area” until USAF complies with environmental laws that allegedly are being violated.

Similar protests and lawsuits against major USAF air training ranges have cropped up in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah. Local residents are expected to sue to block the plan to establish a low-level route and training area in Texas for the Realistic Bomber Training Initiative. The Navy, which uses many of the same routes and ranges traversed by USAF aircraft, also is threatened by those protests and by challenges to its combined-arms training area at Vieques, Puerto Rico, and to some of its own key air training ranges at NAS Fallon, Nev.

Ralston’s Warning

These problems are not exactly new.

Five years ago, when he was commander of USAF’s Air Combat Command, Gen. Joseph W. Ralston created a special office designed to deal with the threats to the training areas. These training areas were more important to US military might than any individual weapon system, said Ralston, who went on to become vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now is Supreme Allied Commander Europe and commander in chief of US European Command. “This issue is more important than the F-22 or B-2,” he said then. “If we lose our airspace, … then we’re going to be out of business as an Air Force.” Far from retrenching on training, the Air Force in some areas “ought to be working on getting more,” said Ralston.

The increase in the threat to the air training facilities stems from several factors. First, new and more-advanced weapon systems have made it possible to use new tactics, the training for which often requires more airspace. The Air Force may have shrunk by 40 percent in the 1990s, but the training footprint has actually expanded. Second, the mushrooming growth of commercial and general aviation has greatly intensified the competition for airspace access, with the military viewed as one of many claimants. Finally, the formerly desolate and sparsely populated American West has become a virtual magnet for people and industry, making it the fastest growing region in the nation. Large and medium-sized cities now can be found in many of the West’s formerly vast empty stretches, used during World War II for military training. Mixing people and low-flying aircraft always has been volatile.

The coalition’s January lawsuit seeks to compel the Air Force to conduct a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement that considers the “cumulative and synergistic impacts” on people, domestic animals, and wildlife from the totality of low-altitude air training operations nationwide.

The Air Force traditionally has analyzed separately each segment of its training areas and produced individual EISs for any proposed change. The coalition’s lawyers, however, argue that this “piecemeal” evaluation is a violation of the National Environmental Protection Act and Council on Environmental Quality regulations.

“By thus improperly segmenting the environmental analysis of its low-level flight training program, the Air Force has avoided comprehensively addressing the cumulative impacts of the program, as required under NEPA and the CEQ’s implementing regulations,” the lawsuit argues. “Moreover, by adhering to this piecemeal approach, the Air Force has deprived the public of its opportunity to participate meaningfully in the environmental analysis of the Air Force’s low-level flight training program-an opportunity NEPA is meant to guarantee.”

In the lawsuit, the negative aspects of Air Force training are presented in graphic terms. One example: “The noise level generated by the Air Force’s low-level training flights is extremely loud, even deafening, often exceeding 110 decibels (just at or above the pain threshold for human beings), and is characterized by a sudden onset, giving rise to severe startle effects on human beings and animals.”

Stampedes, Bucked Riders

It claims the flights “harm rural ranching and farming communities across the country by causing livestock to panic, stampede, drop calves, injure themselves, and cause other property damage and by causing horses to buck their riders.”

Further, the suit contends that intense and persistent noise harms numerous species of wild fowl and animals “by interfering with their ability to forage and successfully reproduce and potentially forcing them to abandon suitable habitat.” The low-level flight program also has “cumulative impacts on the viability of communities in undeveloped, rural areas, … [harms] rural ranching and farming communities,” and “undermines the tourism-dependent economies of undeveloped areas by greatly diminishing their appeal.”

Use of training routes over “sensitive public lands,” such as national parks, wilderness preserves, and wildlife refuges, is “systemically degrading these special use” areas.

The suit also contends that the training “is cumulatively impacting” Native Americans, impeding “their ability to conduct traditional religious ceremonies.” These effects must be analyzed on a nationwide basis, the plaintiffs argue, because all the low-level routes and airspaces “function together as a vast, interconnected network.” To reinforce its argument, the suit cites complaints from a number of federal agencies, including the US Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Bureau of Land Management.

The suit contends the Air Force recognized the need for a comprehensive analysis by contracting for its own “Generic EIS” of the entire training network in the 1980s. That study was dropped, the suit alleges, because an internal memo suggested it “does not put the Air Force in a favorable light.” That’s not what the Air Force says. An official familiar with the matter said USAF scrapped the GEIS when its own experts reviewed the draft and found it “lacked technical merit.”

USAF’s initial official response to the coalition’s lawsuit was a statement that said: “Realistic training is essential for the United States Air Force. It provides the combat edge that enables victory in battle and reduces American casualties.” That’s not the point, suggested the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Simeon Herskovits of the Western Environmental Law Center, Taos, N.M. “The lawsuit doesn’t deny that this may be valuable, necessary training,” he stated. Although some members of the coalition might want to stop all low-altitude training, he added, “that’s not our objective in this lawsuit.”

The main goal is “to have this Programmatic EIS done, so for the first time, there will be a thorough, comprehensive analysis of these operations,” he said.

Seeking Reductions

The plaintiffs also believe that “there is more of this going on than is necessary,” said Herskovits. “Presumably, if we were to win, it would result in a reduction … or a consolidation [of training], so less area is impacted, or in its being done differently to reduce the impact.”

The lawsuit urges the court, at the minimum, to require the Air Force to fly no lower than 2,000 feet above the ground on its low-level routes. Today, the normal low-level training altitude extends down to 300 feet above ground level.

“It may not be realistic to think that the court will have the Air Force stop” its low-level training, Herskovits said, “but because we feel that NEPA requires this PEIS, it’s quite likely that the court would stop the Air Force from expanding” its air operations until that analysis is done. “That could stop it from moving forward with things like the Realistic Bomber Training Initiative,” he added.

So far, Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters has downplayed the threats.

“Of course we have been sued about aircraft noise,” he said, “but I’ve been sued about 3,000 times as Secretary.” He added, “I think nobody is particularly fond of aircraft noise in their backyard.” Of the Air Force position, Peters said, “I think we’re right. I think we’ve done what NEPA requires. Right now, we’re looking good.”

Col. Fred Pease, chief of the Air Force Ranges and Airspace Division, was cautious. “I don’t think you can take anything for granted,” he said. Pease called the lawsuits and protests part of the “public feedback,” which, he said, also includes people who say they love to see military aircraft fly by.

The veteran fighter pilot disputed the claim that the nearly 1,000 training routes, operating areas, and ranges form an integral unit. “It’s not one big system that does all this. It is a series of small systems” that are used differently by each wing or command, based on their aircrews’ training needs, he said. “Each time that we change any unit’s mission requirements, or change the infrastructure, we do the appropriate Environmental Impact Statement.”

Pease said the Air Force does look at “the cumulative effect” of its flight operations when there are “units that overlap.” Pease and other Air Force officials noted the elaborate steps the service takes to analyze alternative ways to meet its need for new training areas, including extensive public notice and reaction.

“Clear Victory”

That interaction with the public frequently results in adjustments to the proposed training area and operations, the colonel said. An example was the Air Force’s agreement with environmentalists last year to change its plans regarding an enhanced training area to be used by the 366th Wing, located at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. Under the agreement, the Air Force adjusted flight operations over Idaho to reduce the impact on bighorn sheep and the tourist trade in the scenic Owyhee Canyonlands. An environmentalist publication called the agreement “a clear victory for the Canyonlands.”

To win Congressional approval to continue using the crucial Nellis Range in Nevada and Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona, the Air Force also agreed last year to change its mode of operations and to increase environmental protection efforts at those two ranges.

Although the new lawsuit cites recent additions to air training areas, Pease noted that half of the 30 million acres of military training land set aside during World War II has been returned to local control. This includes 35,000 acres in Nevada and 100,000 acres in Arizona.

In choosing the site for its Realistic Bomber Training Initiative, the Air Force also responded to public protests. USAF selected former training areas southeast of Lubbock, Texas, rather than more politically sensitive areas in New Mexico and west Texas. The RBTI record of decision that was released March 29 would create the Lancer Military Operating Area by consolidating three small MOAs that had served the former Reese AFB, Texas. This would create a 46-by-92-mile area for training use and return about 1,000 square miles of airspace to civilian use.

The Lancer MOA and an existing low-altitude route that runs into it from the southwest will provide better and more efficient training for crews of B-1Bs at Dyess AFB, Texas, and B-52s at Barksdale AFB, La., according to the Air Force. Currently, those crews waste hours and fuel flying to training ranges as far away as Utah, said Maj. John Boyle, the Dyess spokesman.

To reduce public objections to the new training area, the Air Force agreed to a minimum altitude of 3,000 feet in the MOA, and 5,000 feet over the town of Snyder, which is situated nearby and would suffer the worst effects of low-level flight.

Even those concessions did not mollify about 1,000 local landowners and business operators who live under the new MOA and the low-level route. Buster Welch, a rancher who formed a protest group called the Heritage Environmental Preservation Association, said they would sue to stop the RBTI from going into operation next year. Welch said the noise from the training would hurt the area’s quality of life and its already weak economy, and it would reduce the value of property belonging to him and others.

“I’m for a strong Air Force,” insisted Welch. “I’m for a well-trained Air Force. I’m not for taking over private property.”

Welch said that area ranchers could not continue making a living raising cattle and relying on tourists and sportsmen who come in to fish, hunt, and enjoy other outdoor pursuits. “Can you visualize city people coming over here and paying us the big bucks to get away from it all,” asked Welch, “only to be under a perpetual bombing attack?”

Pease said the Air Force always is willing to talk to people who object to its operations, “to listen closely to what they’ve got to say, and to try to address their issues.” However, he added, “The bottom line is, we also want to give the crews the opportunity to be the very best trained they can be. I think the majority of Americans support that.”

Otto Kreisher is a Washington, D.C.­based military affairs reporter and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Jerry Lewis on the F-22,” appeared in the February 2000 issue.