Expansion of military operations in Magdalena Ranger District: What’s the rush?

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The military has been training in the Magdalena Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest for a long time. Most of us who live, work, hunt or hike in the area north of Highway 60 experience frequent low-flying helicopters and other aircraft. The noise of these aircraft rattles our houses, wakes us up at night, and scares wildlife and cattle. Many have also encountered ground-based training – with pyrotechnics, combat simulations, and dozens of soldiers traveling over the forest at night.

What many don’t know is that the military has proposed a significant expansion of this training on public land. If the Forest Service grants this request, they will construct three new helicopter landing zones just north of Magdalena off Rd. 354. They will conduct 4,378 flights each year, and perform 26,230 maneuvers, such as flying in circles over large areas, practicing touch and go landings, and dropping off personnel and equipment.

And this isn’t all. The number and size of the field training exercises will be increased. These training exercises will involve firing over 58,000 rounds annually, including pyrotechnics such as ground burst simulators and smoke grenades.

We all understand that the military must train its pilots and soldiers to fight terrorism abroad. But why can’t the Defense Department provide land for this important mission? There are over 2.3 million acres of land between Kirtland Air Force Base, Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Fort Bliss, adds another 1.12 million acres. Combined, this is over 5,000 square miles – almost the size of Connecticut. With so much land under its control, surely the military can find a few hundred acres to use for this training. Yet the proposal does not even consider the option of conducting training exercises on military land.

The officers I’ve spoken to say they’d prefer to train on military land, but claim that bureaucratic hurdles and inter-base politics make it easier to get permission from the Forest Service.

It’s time for this to change. This level of training violates the Forest Service mission “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” Before acting on the military’s proposal, the Forest Service should ask for a thorough assessment of options for using military land, including ways to address bureaucratic hurdles.

The military’s Environmental Assessment, or EA, includes over 700 pages of documents and states that the impact of these activities is minimal. For example, they estimate that only a few people will be “moderately or more annoyed” by the noise from the aircraft, and provide a lot of numbers to prove that the noise does not exceed acceptable levels for people or wildlife. From my conversations with residents from Riley and subdivisions west of the Bear Mountains, we are more than “moderately annoyed.” We’d prefer a decrease in the noise and certainly don’t want more!

The EA also states that disturbance to soil and vegetation will be minimal, and that there will be no long term effects from ground training activities. Again, this is wrong. I’ve seen the base camps in the aftermath of a training event: the vegetation is flattened by tracks of heavy vehicles, new erosion channels are already forming. Everyone familiar with the terrain knows that it likely won’t recover at all, and will probably degrade further. Yet the military claims that they “leave no trace.”

As I delved into the small print of the EA, I discovered that my property is completely enclosed by the military’s Tactics Training boundary! This could explain why trainees frequently trespass on my land. My fence has been cut and damaged on numerous occasions, and trash from navigational flares covers the ground. Yet the EA claims that private property is strictly respected, that their activities are far from any residence, and that all trash is packed out.

There are many more issues that deserve attention, including inappropriate designation of roads available to heavy vehicles and treatment of fire hazards. It will take more than 30 days – the time allowed by the Forest Service to gather public comments – to review the documents thoroughly.

This project is of significant concern to local residents, forest users and other stakeholders. The Forest Service needs to do more to inform the public and ensure that it protects the forest for the future of all. It should extend the comment period so that all affected parties have the chance to understand the military’s proposal and to review the EA for themselves. Hard copies should be provided for those without ready access to the internet. In addition, the Forest Service should hold public meetings in communities near training locations to ensure widespread awareness of the scope of this project.

For more information, see http://www.fs.fed.us/nepa/fs-usda-pop.php?project=5375. In particular, see the summary tables and maps in the EA Vol. 1.

Arian Pregenzer, a fifth generation New Mexican, retired from Sandia National Laboratories in 2011. She has a residence on 160 acres enclosed in the Cibola National Forest north of Magdalena.