By John E. Wilks, Life member, activist
A decision by the U.S. Air Force to permanently expand the airspace for F-16 flight training in Southern New Mexico is imminent. The Pentagon will choose one of four options in the draft environmental impact statement published in October, as New Mexicans have voiced vehement opposition to the option of sorties over Gila National Forest.
Hundreds of people attended December public hearings held by the Air Force in Socorro, T or C, Silver City and Las Cruces — all in opposition to military training over the Gila.
Although the hearing process has concluded, the Air Force will accept written comments from the public until Jan. 31. Unless a “No Action” option is adopted, depending on which of the other three alternatives are elected, the military could gain access to the skies above up to 9 million acres of largely public land for military training.
Although the Air Force has acknowledged that current airspace is adequate for F-16 combat training, it would like to add more and desires a “backyard” training area that it exclusively controls. Apparently, asking the Army for use of White Sands Missile Range and a portion of Fort Bliss instead is no longer ideal. The Air Force plans to use the expanded airspace to fly no fewer than 10,000 sorties annually, while dropping 15,360 magnesium/teflon flares and 15,360 bundles of metallic chaff on areas containing four national forests, one wilderness area, one wildlife refuge, designated critical habitats for threatened species and innumerable sacred Native American sites. Flying at 500 feet to 51,000 feet from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, F-16 fighter jets would practice combat maneuvers, occasionally breaking the sound barrier.
Not a single job would be created by this expansion, though nine counties in New Mexico and two counties in Arizona would suffer the effects of noise, pollution, litter, fire, reduced quality of life and diminished recreation opportunities. Additionally, the adverse impact on wildlife and grazing herds, including threatened species like the Mexican spotted owl, which depends on its hearing for hunting, has not been quantified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Finally, management of any wildland fires stemming from flares or aircraft crashes would be the responsibility of local jurisdictions that don’t have the financial or human resources to fight them.
To learn more, visit www.peacefulgilaskies.com or www.nmwild.org or Draft EIS for SUA Optimization to Support Existing Aircraft at Holloman AFB, NM. Comments to the Air Force must be submitted by Jan. 31. Write: Holloman AFB EIS, c/o Cardo, 501 Butler Farm Road, Suite “H”, Hampton, VA 23666, or go to actionnetwork.org/petitions/f-16 to send a comment that will be delivered to the Air Force.
Please weigh in — training flights over the Gila are not a done deal. Go to riograndesierraclub.org/f-16 to learn more.
Featured image – courtesy of U.S. Air Force. F-16s would be dropping 15,000 magnesium/teflon flares like those in the photo during training flights over the Gila National Forest under one of the Air Force’s proposals.