Military flyovers create risks for San Juan Mtns.

Friday, Nov. 18, 2011 10:20 PM
Residents already have seen some of these large Air Force C-130 planes flying above the Animas River Valley. This one, an MC-130J, is marshaled into place at Cannon Air Force Base in September.
C-130 planes have been spotted flying low over this section of Eagle Pass in the La Plata Mountains. In late summer herds of elk bask in the grasses below the pass.
A CV-22 Osprey cruises through a canyon in northern New Mexico. The Air Force says it may fly 688 flights a year over western Colorado’s mountains and river canyons to train crews for flights over mountainous terrain around the world.

SAN JUAN MOUNTAINS — I’ve hiked Tomahawk Basin in the La Platas, and on the shoulders of Diorite Peak at 12,761 feet rest a few shards of twisted aluminum from a 1960s military plane crash. Not much is left, but when walking the trail, the glitter is unmistakable.

Now the U.S. Air Force wants to fly nightly over Colorado’s Western Slope from the New Mexico state line north to the Colorado River, east to the Continental Divide, and west to Utah. Air Force pilots want to fly from Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, N.M., north to Colorado.

They seek up to 688 missions a year to develop pilot proficiency. They want to practice with an MC-130J Combat Shadow II and a CV-22 Osprey, the Special Operations Forces variant of the U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey, one of the deadliest and most expensive planes ever engineered. As taxpayers we’ve spent $22 billion on this plane that can take off and land like a helicopter.

Thirty Americans have died in Osprey crashes, with 19 deaths in Arizona alone. Experts claim that the Osprey has cost more in time, money and lives than any other military plane. It handles like a sports car and pilots love the thrill. The Air Force wants to fly it over Western Colorado’s mountains, canyons and river valleys, in part because our terrain resembles where Americans fight these days — in the Hindu Kush and the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Air Force spokeswoman 2nd Lt. Stephanie L. Strine said 95 percent of the flights would be at night. “As a special operations wing, we fly almost entirely at night for tactical reasons, so we train the same way. Five percent of flights would be conducted as daytime surveys, so our crews can spot new obstructions in the training area.”

For the tourist industry, for hunters and fishermen, for hikers and mountain climbers, for the thousands of retirees who have moved to Western Colorado for our clean air, clear nights, silence and solitude, this may be an environmental disaster in the making. Durango is one of those rare American communities more than three hours from an interstate highway. In the 1930s, Will Rogers quipped that Durango “was out of the way and glad of it.” We thought we were far from the Twin Towers in New York City and Sept. 11. Now the world has come to us.

Secure in our neighborhoods, our remote cabins, our family ranches, if the Air Force has its way, we will be isolated no more. Questions loom large. But how do you say “no” to the U.S. Air Force?

The Air Force is obligated to follow the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA (1970), which Congress legislated because citizens found they could trust neither corporations nor the U.S. government. The sordid story of underground nuclear explosions in Nevada and secret atomic tests that poisoned thousands of sheep and caused cancer for hundreds of citizens is still not fully known.

Now all federal agencies, including the U.S. military, must abide by NEPA. The first step is the simple low-ball, Environmental Assessment process, not the more time-consuming and thorough preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement that would analyze airspace management, noise, airspace safety, air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, land use and recreation, socioeconomics and environmental justice. The Air Force would prefer an EA over an EIS.

What do you say to a Navajo herder whose pregnant flock of sheep has just been buzzed by a CV-22 Osprey flying 300 feet above the ground? What are the socioeconomic impacts for our tourist-based economy? What about federally protected wilderness areas? If you’ve hiked 15 miles into the backcountry, the last thing you want to hear or see is low-flying aircraft.

Both The Durango Herald in an editorial and the San Juan County, Colo., board of commissioners have urged a complete and thorough environmental study.

San Juan County Commissioner Pete McKay attended an Air Force meeting in Durango in October and said, “As an individual county commissioner, the phrase that resonated most with me was ‘this was not the place’ for these training flyovers. The dark skies and quiet solitude of this region of the Rocky Mountains may be unequaled in our country. We should protect these special values so they will not be lost forever.”

Pitkin County, Gunnison County and the town of Crested Butte are also demanding an EIS.

Environmental questions remain unanswered and so do safety issues. On April 9, 2010, a CV-22 Osprey crashed in Afghanistan. The executive summary of the accident investigation stated, “The total loss for the (aircraft), crew, equipment and ammunition totaled more than $87 million.” During its last seconds the plane “developed an unanticipated rapid rate of descent and impacted the ground at 75 knots ground speed.” In other words, it dropped straight down. The planes weigh in excess of 120,000 pounds and can fly at 260 mph.

The addendum executive summary explained, “The greater weight of credible evidence supports engine power loss” as a primary reason for the crash.

That is exactly the kind of failure that could cause an eco-disaster in our mountainous terrain if thousands of gallons of fuel fell into our high alpine basins and protected watersheds. During our dry summer months an accident with a low-flying military plane might easily start a catastrophic wildfire.

If no accidents occur, what about noise pollution? At the briefing in Durango on Oct. 11, I asked for the sound of the airplanes flying at 300 feet to be played in the meeting room. No recording of the decibel level was available. Former regional forester and director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife John Mumma told me, “I don’t have any recent scientific information, but my view is that flights less than 1,000 feet or even 2,000 feet are really going to harass animals on their winter range.”

Col. Larry Munz, vice-wing commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, explained that these practice sessions are not just for combat but also for humanitarian missions such as sending relief to Haiti, assisting victims of Hurricane Katrina, and helping Japan after its horrific tsunami. But the command’s goal is “to train to insert, extract, or re-supply Special Forces.”

I queried how long the training missions would continue. He answered, “As long as there’s an operational need for it.” Col. Munz added, “The pilots need to become proficient in flying at low altitudes in mountainous terrain. The pre-mission training is critical. They need to figure it out.”

I hunt elk with the father of an Air Force serviceman. Beside the front door to my friend’s log house is his gun rack and above it in a triangular oak case is the folded flag presented to him at his son’s military funeral. The young man died in an accident in 1996 in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Air Force One had just taken off with President Bill Clinton and the next plane contained the president’s limousine. Flying in and out of mountains at altitude is difficult. The second plane never cleared the Tetons.

I think of the dangers of flying low over the San Juans, the La Platas, the Elk Mountain range, and the river canyons of the Animas, Gunnison and Dolores. Small shiny strips of aluminum can still be found in Tomahawk Basin. At night they reflect the stars.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at