All three members of Montana’s Congressional delegation are working to address concerns over US Air Force airspace training over southeastern Montana.
The Air Force has agreed to re-open a comment period regarding the Powder River Corridor Training Complex at the request of Congressman Denny Rehberg. The comment period originally ended November 15, 2010 and has now been extended until January 20, 2011.
Meanwhile U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester are urging the Air Force not to expand the training airspace at all because of the disruption to rancher, farmers, Great Lakes Airlines, and private aviation functions. As an alternative the senators are asking the Air Force to make use of airspace already in Montana in a way that will support jobs and offer even better training by incorporating F-15 fighters at the Montana Air National Guard.
Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund said “R-CALF is grateful to Senators Baucus and Tester for standing up for Montana ranchers and all of the folks in southeastern Montana and saying no to the Powder River expansion.”
The existing Powder River training airspace covers 8,200 square nautical miles in South Dakota, Wyoming and a small portion of southeastern Montana. Approximately 50-60 percent of the Air Force’s proposed expansion is over Montana. While a recent draft Environmental Impact Statement produced by the Air Forced describes this area as “primarily rural and uninhabited in character,” it would in fact include the towns of Colstrip, Hardin and Baker, along with the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indian reservations. It also travels over Carter County.
Senators Baucus and Tester outlined harmful effects to the Montana Economy and reiterated their strong opposition to the expansion in a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz on Tuesday.
Baucus and Tester cited the potential disruption of commercial and private aviation that could costs jobs that generate $3.8 million in economic activity. The senators also noted the bombers used in training exercises fly fast enough to break the sound barrier and regularly reach noise levels that cause disruption to residents, livestock and wildlife in the area. Baucus and Tester highlighted other negative consequences of expanding the training area, including fire hazards from Air Force training exercise flares, the disruption of Montana emergency medical flights, and potential damage to the Little Big Horn National Battlefield.
The Senators also urged the Air Force to consider using the F-15 aircraft stationed at Great Falls to improve the air-to-air training scenarios available to the Air Force bomber fleet. Baucus and Tester suggested that the Air Force utilize other airspace currently available in Montana, such as the Hays Military Operations Area in north-central Montana. Hays is larger than Powder River and could provide realistic training scenarios when combined with exercises for the F-15 fighters at the Montana Air National Guard (MANG) Station in Great Falls. In November, Baucus, Tester and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer pressed Secretary Donley and General Schwartz for answers on the proposed change from an F-15 to a C-27J flying mission for MANG in Great Falls.
The Montana Department of Transportation has also joined Baucus and Tester in opposing the expansion.