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ND officials sound off against AF training complex expansion

A B-1 bomber assigned to the 37th Bomb Squadron rumbles off the flight line at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., April 4, 2012, as part of a combat training mission over Fort Yukon, Alaska.

Aviation, energy and government officials from North Dakota are up in arms against the U.S. Air Force’s controversial Powder River Training Complex expansion plan, which, if implemented, would extend into the southwestern part of the state.

“I wish I could see them try to get this passed in New York City,” Bowman County, N.D., Commissioner Pine Abrahamson said. “The reason they’re doing it out here is that there’s not a lot of votes.”

The expansion from about 7,000 square miles to more than 28,000 square miles would cover parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. It is intended to mimic war conditions in which missiles can be accurately fired from hundreds of miles away, according to the Air Force.

Minot Air Force Base and Ellsworth Air Force Base pilots based in Rapid City, S.D., would conduct air training missions 240 days of the year, mostly Monday through Friday between three to six hours per day. Pilots would operate B-1 Lancers — jet bombers that can travel at supersonic speeds — and B-52s — long-range jet bombers.

Between 10 to 12 days of each year would be devoted to large-scale “war game”-style exercises, called Red Flag exercises. Jets would only be able to break the speed of sound, causing a sonic boom, during this time. These exercises would feature no live fire.

Roger Meggers, owner of Baker Air Services in Baker, Montana, said he fears air travel from his town’s airport would be severely restricted. When a military operating area is active, certain types of planes are not allowed to fly through the space, he said.

“I’m not anti-military at all,” Meggers said. “I fully support our military and I want a strong military, but they already have adequate facilities to train in.”

The Air Force announced its intent to expand the Powder River complex in 2008. Public meetings were held from 2008 to 2010, but the plan appeared shelved because of negative feedback.

Plans were revived in February when the FAA issued a circular about the Powder River proposal, which provided specific boundaries of military zones.

Gap military operation areas would be established for nonmilitary aircraft, but Meggers said there may be difficulty navigating them.

Baker Mayor Clayton Hornung said he doubts emergency aircraft and crop dusters would be able to fly where they need to.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s period for members of the public to submit comments about the plan ended on May 3.

On April 20, Bob Lamond, president of the National Business Aviation Association, which represents more than 8,000 companies, wrote a letter to the Air Force and FAA opposing the plan because of increased fuel costs. Flying around active military training missions would force some flights to buy hundreds more pounds of gas, he wrote.

The North Dakota Aeronautics Commission submitted a joint letter expressing concerns about how Air Force jets might clash with a new airport under construction in Bowman. The new airport is expected to open in 2015, costing approximately $16 million to accommodate oil boom-era air traffic. If overlaid with an active military area, operations there would be negatively affected, according to the letter.

Abrahamson said he knows of no one in his county who supports the expansion. Ranchers have complained to him about how jets, sonic booms and flares might scare cattle, causing them to lose weight, he said.

David Galt, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, wrote a letter on April 29, saying the expansion would complicate efforts to monitor oil and natural gas infrastructure.

Galt also noted that the use of flares might harm sage-grouse habitats. The federal government is mulling over whether to designate sage-grouse as an endangered species.

The Air Force contends that there have been no flare fires caused by B-1 jets in the last 20 years, and that flares may only be used above 2,000 feet. But, fires caused by military-style flares do occur.

In 2007, a flare dropped by an F-16 fighter jet burned thousands of acres of forest and forced thousands of people to evacuate from Ocean and Burlington Counties, N.J.

An environmental impact report, following the National Environmental Policy Act, has yet to be released for the expansion. Staff Sgt. Mark Leahy, an Air Force public affairs officer, said no final decisions on the plan will be made until that report’s release.

The Air Force and FAA are still meeting with federal, state and tribal groups about the new space’s environmental consequences, Leahy said.

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