Air Force, Marines look to expand training in Cibola lands

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Elva K. Österreich/El Defensor Chieftain: Col. Stephen Andreasen, vice commander of the 58th Special Operations Wing, Kirtland Air Force Base, tries to answer questions from the community at a meeting in Magdalena.

Marine, Air Force and U.S. Forest Service representatives met with residents of the Cibola National Forest’s Magdalena Ranger District area to talk with them about a proposal to continue and expand military training in the area.

More than 80 individuals from the Magdalena mountain areas faced those present to explain and listen to concerns.

Cheryl Prewitt with the Magdalena Ranger District started explaining the project, which is looking for a permit to continue military exercises in not only the Magdalena Ranger District but also in the Mount Taylor and Mountainair areas.

Area residents expressed concern about potential damage and disruption that could occur from proposed actions allowed in the proposed training area. Increases in operations in the Magdalena Ranger District would mean more helicopter, Osprey and airplane activity including low-level tactical navigation, approach, departures and more.

Pararescue activity includes activities day and night, over 100,000 rounds fired annually and an increased number of courses held in the area. The environmental assessment allows for 4,378 sorties (flights) a year.

Col. Stephen Andreasen, vice commander of the 58th Special Operations Wing, Kirtland Air Force Base, said during the meeting that for the purpose of the environmental assessment, all potential activity was pushed to the maximum. For example, the more than 4,000 sorties is the maximum his group does across all operations.

“We overstated for the purpose of the EA,” he said. “The guys spend less than 50 days (each) in the field per year. There will be 100 to 150 landings in a year.”

“We are in a time we are going to fly less,” added Kim Fornof, with Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.

Andreasen also said not a single shot of live ammunition is fired during any of the exercises held in the national forest areas.

Fornof added that a permit will not be issued until the EA process is complete. Current operations are taking place under a temporary permit, which ends in June 2014. A new public comment period will open sometime in December, according to Ruth Sutton, public affairs officer for the Cibola National Forest.

One of the questions audience members asked a number of times was why the exercises can’t be done in an area controlled by the military rather than open public lands. Andreasen said other places are used extensively. Most of the training his wing completes is done on Kirtland Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range.

“About 2 percent (of the training) is done here,” he said.

If someone practices basketball only in their driveway, Andreasen said, their experience is limited and that affects how they are able to perform on the court. He also said New Mexico is important for the trainings because flying at a higher elevation is completely different than flying at sea level, and those who need to fly rescue missions need to be familiar with the elevations.

“It’s really important for us to learn to operate in this kind of environment,” he said. “New Mexico, because of the desert and high altitude, is critical.”

Area rancher Johnny Krynitz stood to tell the audience about the disturbance the military exercises have had on his cows and the youth in treatment foster care whom he and his wife take in. He said he had a cow that died and the autopsy revealed a little white parachute commonly used in the exercises. Also he reported consistent noise and activity, including the sound of machine gun fire, near his property.

“These are our homes and this is our livelihood,” he said.

When an audience member brought up the danger of fire in the forest related to the trainings, Magdalena District Ranger Dennis Aldridge pointed out that in 25 years of training, a fire has never gotten away from them.

The general meeting broke apart so that people present could speak their thoughts and ask questions individually of the officials present. Written comments were encouraged.