Thursday, July 5, 2012

27th SOW, Cannon Air Force Base terminates the low altitude training area environmental analysis (9/2011 EA)

On June 21 the U.S. Air Force issued this press release regarding the proposed Low Altitude Tactical Navigation (LATN) aka Low Altitude Training Area (LATA) for Colorado and New Mexico:

Press release: Air Force terminates low altitude training area environmental analysis
Published: Thursday, June 21st, 2012 
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M.  -- Air Force Special Operations Command leadership concluded that a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) could not be reached through the current Environmental Assessment (EA) of the 27th Special Operations Wing's Low Altitude Training Area proposal currently under review.

Leadership anticipated that the No Action Alternative presented in the LATA proposal would not meet the wing's training requirements. Subsequently, the current EA action will be terminated and the Air Force will conduct a deeper analysis on a broader scope of wing training requirements.

"After careful evaluation, it became clear that a Finding of No Significant Impact could not be reached for this EA and still accomplish all of the training critical for our special operations forces," said Brig. Gen. Michael Kingsley, AFSOC vice commander.

The decision to terminate the current EA was influenced by the limited scope of the proposal; the valuable comments received from the public, agencies and other interested parties; and the existing need to supplement portions of the Beddown Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) at Cannon AFB, said Kingsley.
The wing, however, continues to have a requirement to train aircrews in low altitude flying. Currently this is being accomplished through the use of established Military Training Routes, Special Use Airspace, Visual Flight Rules, and excess capacity from other bases. All of these methods adhere to FAA regulations and Air Force Instructions. However, they provide less than optimal training and will not be sufficient as Cannon continues to receive its full complement of aircraft, expected to be complete in 2017.

"We still need to conduct flying training missions." said Col. Buck Elton, 27 SOW commander. "The wing operates nine different types of aircraft, each with unique training requirements. We are now conducting a complete review of all of our training needs, including, but not limited to, low altitude flying."

The requirement to assess the impact of low-altitude training, which drove the LATA EA, now overlaps with the Air Force's responsibility to assess additional training needs that were not fully known or entirely addressed during the initial Cannon Beddown EIS and Record of Decision in 2007, including requirements learned from recent operations. Fiscal realities and Air Force guidance indicate a transition to a more comprehensive analysis of the alternatives available to meet Cannon's training requirements would be wise.
Currently, the 27th Special Operations Wing is refining its flying training requirements. When these requirements are fully defined, the Air Force will follow the implementing regulations prescribed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to determine the appropriate action.

"The NEPA process helps us make well-informed environmental decisions. We intend to fully define our training requirements, and then take the most appropriate action to meet those requirements," said Elton.
These fully defined training requirements may require more detailed environmental impact analysis and may lead to preparation of an EIS. The Air Force expects to make this determination in early 2013.
"We will find the best way to achieve our critical training objectives while remaining good neighbors to the people of Colorado and New Mexico and good stewards of our environment," said Kingsley.
While this is good news for those who took the position that a serious and accurate analysis of potential impacts and appropriate mitigation measures was needed before the Air Force moved forward with the proposal, it is unfortunate this Press Release was not directly emailed to those who took the time to submit written and oral comments.  
On June 11th, 2012, (before the above press release was ever issued) I was made aware by reporter, about the Denver Post article that stated that the LATN proposal had been "postponed indefinitely".  After reading the June 5th Denver Post article (CLICK HERE), I went to the Cannon Air Force Base web site.  From the June 5th press release Cannon Air Force Base had posted on their web site,  there was nothing that said the Air Force was postponing indefinitely -- just that they were reevaluating their training needs and would make a decision on whether a more detailed study was needed in early 2013.   Here is what I wrote to that reporter on the night of June 11th, 2012: 
"From the 6/5/2012 Cannon Air Force Base announcement on its web site, the Air Force says that it is reevaluating training requirements from lessons learned in Afghanistan and from a 2007 report that appears to contribute to “emerging training requirements”  that will lead to “refining” special operations flying training requirements. 

The 6/5/2012 Cannon web site post goes on to say that the Air Force expects to finish the refinements to training requirements and then make a determination in “early 2013” about what an appropriate environmental analysis for the low-altitude training requirements might be. 

In 2010-2012, Ouray County and myself [see the LATN tab at the top of this blog] went on record asking for a detailed analysis to identify potential impacts that may exist for ranching, recreation, game and sensitive species, potential to trigger avalanche, medical and emergency response, and other community concerns.  There were shortcomings in the September 2011 Environmental Assessment document.  The 2011 EA fell short of the accuracy in baseline information about the communities and landscapes it was going to be flying over, and thus could not be trusted to identify proactive mitigation measures.

Based on the information released by the Air Force this week [June 5th], it seems that a 6-month or so step back will be helpful for them to focus on what is best for training our military.  Personally, I believe that our military should be the best trained military in the world.  I also believe that training needs to be conducted to ensure the safety of not only those in flight, but also those on the ground.  It also needs to be respectful of people’s livelihoods and the character of the landscape.  Hopefully, this action by the Air Force leads a level of analysis of future low-altitude activities equivalent to an Environmental Impact Statement.  The best odds of having potential impacts appropriately mitigated exist if the affected communities and landscapes are correctly identified and a thorough analysis based on accurate data is conducted. 
However, now from finding the June 21 Cannon Air Force Base press release, it does seem very clear that the Air Force took the substantial public comments into consideration and recognizes the deficiencies in the 2011 Environmental Assessment.  I really appreciate the straightforwardness of this latest press release and the Air Force's commitment to balancing training needs, environmental health, and the health, safety, and welfare of the people living under a proposed LATA.  Our democracy could not exist without those dedicated to protecting and serving the American people.
Cannon Air Force Base appears to have taken down most of the LATN/LATA materials from their web site, but the Sept. 2011 EA is still available along with the June 21st press release.   To keep up with this topic, you and I will need to keep visiting for the most up-to-date information.

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