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In yet another act of bipartisan cooperation, the three members of Montana's congressional delegation have teamed up to stop — or at least slow down — the proposed expansion of a federal training area for B-1 and B-52 bombers.  

Lately, it seems as though Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh working with Sen.-elect Steve Daines has been the rule rather than the exception. In this instance, their combined efforts are absolutely necessary to put the brakes on the planned expansion of the Powder River Training Complex, which has the support of government leaders from North and South Dakota. After all, it is U.S. Air Force bases in those states that would be making use of Montana airspace.

The Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration are proposing to expand the bomber training area used by Ellsworth Air Force Base to 28,000 square miles in North and South Dakota, Wyoming and southeastern Montana. The proposed training zone would be four times larger than the current training area, and in fact would become the largest such area in the continental U.S. This entire area would be shut down to other aviators whenever a training exercise took place.

That is one of several reasons why Daines, Tester and Walsh are urging the Air Force and FAA to make sure they address the concerns of local residents and aviators before moving forward with their plans. Unfortunately, those concerns have gotten short shrift so far. 

Back in March, Tester and Walsh criticized the FAA's public commenting process, which for some reason didn't accept comments submitted electronically. Further, the study that the public was supposed to be basing its comments on was difficult to dig up. It wasn't posted anywhere on the FAA website.

In July, Daines sent a letter to  Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta requesting that mitigating changes be made to improve safety for civilian aviators and reduce the economic impact on oil and gas activity. He also asked that the agencies consider the concerns of local residents, including members of Cheyenne and Crow tribes. 

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Then, Daines, Tester and Walsh fired off a joint letter last week to following the Air Force's release of its Environmental Impact Statement, which attempts to quantify the degree of disruption to local communities, including local farms and ranches and aviation activity. Specifically, the Air Force study, released Nov. 28, found that up to 78 civilian flights could be shut down each day of a large-scale exercise, which would be limited to 10 days per year. Large-scale exercises typically involve about 20 aircraft. Additionally, up to nine low-altitude flights could use the training area each year as well. 

Daines, Tester and Walsh are right in pointing out that both the FAA and Air Force need to communicate with Montana residents about the potential safety and economic impacts of the proposed expansion plan.

A final decision from the Air Force could arrive before the year ends. Let's hope they heed Montana's congressional delegates, and hear the concerns of Montanans before taking any steps to expand the Power River Training Complex.

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Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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