Army is looking for a helicopter training deal in BLM's high country
By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: August 18, 2019
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — The Army is seeking to make a 10-year-old crash program permanent to prepare Fort Carson chopper pilots for combat in Afghanistan by training in high terrain owned by the Bureau of Land Management.
Since its interim approval in 2010, the program has used mountain landing sites in El Paso, Park, Teller and Fremont counties to train helicopter crews before they head overseas. But Army efforts to get permanent approval for such use of federal lands has faced opposition from landowners and environmental groups who say helicopters disrupt the natural wonders of the Rockies, harass wildlife and pose safety concerns.
“We believe that both the Army and BLM have failed to recognize and appreciate the existence of our rural residential community and the adverse impacts to be reasonably anticipated from the long-term, low-altitude overflights of military helicopters en route to their various exercise landing zones,” wrote one homeowners association in western Fremont County.
The BLM isn’t speeding its process to evaluate the Army’s proposal, said spokesman Brant Porter, but it hopes another series of public comments will help it find an alternative that works for all parties.
“We aren’t jumping ahead quite yet,” Porter said.
Comments are invited through Sept. 11 and can be submitted at go.usa.gov/xywF7.
“Public input is vital for informing our decision,” said Keith Berger, BLM Royal Gorge field manager. “We welcome this opportunity to gather input from the community that we serve.”
The Army, which seeks permanent use of 43 helicopter landing zones, has long prized Colorado’s steep terrain for training. Since World War II, when the famed 10th Mountain Division got its start near Leadville, troops headed for tough terrain have counted on Colorado to get them ready.
Fort Carson says the training “provides helicopter crew members with the experience and skills required to operate aircraft safely at high altitude in mountainous terrain prior to deploying to areas with high elevations and rugged topography throughout the world.”
The post is home to more than 120 helicopters, which can decide battles in places like Afghanistan by shuttling troops and supplies through otherwise impassable terrain.
The reason training at high altitudes is so important for helicopter crews comes down to physics. Thin air is less capable of supporting a chopper’s weight, and the lack of oxygen starves helicopter engines of power. The combination has led to a string of crashes in Colorado, including the destruction of a $7 million Black Hawk helicopter and injuries of four crew members in 2015 in the high country west of Colorado Springs.
The Army says training in Colorado can prevent tragedy overseas. “This training prepares aviators to operate at high altitudes where there is less power available to conduct maneuvers such as takeoff and landings.”
But no matter how necessary and important the training might be, conducting it in some of America’s most pristine vistas is bound to draw critics. And the loudest criticism is from those who head to the high country in search of peace and quiet, the BLM acknowledges.
“Fort Carson and the BLM made an attempt to avoid proposing landing zones near residences, areas of high visitor use, and areas where there might be conflicts with wildlife,” the agency said. “In general, however, recreational users such as campers, hikers, rock climbers, hunters, and bike riders value and have high expectations for peaceful and quiet experiences on public land.”
The Army suggests that by opening a wider swath of federal land to helicopter training, things will get quieter. Without BLM approval, the Army said, it will rely on Forest Service land around Pikes Peak for training, focusing more than 6,000 helicopter landings a year on about a dozen landing zones. Adding 43 landing zones would cut the traffic volume to a fraction, and while the activity would be more widespread, each landing zone would see less of it, the Army says.
“By having multiple landing zones, aircrews retain the ability to train and have the ability to adjust to future growth and changes in the region,” the Army said. “Without an approved right-of-way grant from BLM, (training) activities would be limited to the existing Pikes Peak Forest Service landing zones and could present a higher rate of use than desired by the Army, the Forest Service, and the public in that area.”
But spreading the pain doesn’t help a major concern expressed by many of the more than 200 people and entities that have commented on the Army proposal.
“The second highest concern related to a fear of negative impacts to quality of life in the project area, disruption to quiet, calm and tranquility,” the Bureau of Land Management said in a summary of public feeling. “Commenters expressed fear of the loss of tranquility for man and animal.”
Robert and Heidi Posavad of Guffey echoed that sentiment.
“We purchased the land we currently own to live, work, hunt and enjoy in peace,” they wrote. “Not to have it turned into a military training site.”
But the BLM might be able to craft a plan that keeps both sides happy, Porter said.
In addition to the full-blown helicopter training plan, the agency is examining alternatives that include seasonal limitations on training and other steps that could ease conflicts.
The alternatives, Porter said, “were developed based on the comments we had during the scoping period.”
Further compromise could come after the next round of comments, he said.
In the meantime, the Army plans to keep training. Porter said an existing “casual use” agreement allows the military to land in the high country.
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