Change in the air (column)
Writers on the Range
I didn’t expect change to come from the air — not the kind of change that transforms the essence of a quiet place. I assumed the biggest risk of life-altering change would most likely come from wildfire.
I watch smoke plumes erupt every year from this high ridge in central Colorado, overlooking the southwest flank of Pikes Peak. I figured that the smoke and flames would one day be from “our” fire, the one that would first incinerate the blanket of evergreens below our house, then make an uphill run to leap our defensible space, leaving us dazed among the ashes.
What I didn’t anticipate was helicopters, although military aircraft lumber or scream through the airspace over this rural area periodically, intrusive anomalies in a serene landscape of ranchland, ponderosa pine forests and grassy notches tucked between rocky buttes. The planes and choppers loop over from U.S. military bases near Colorado Springs, including Fort Carson, beyond our eastern horizon.
As it happens, Fort Carson is also east of Cripple Creek, Cañon City and points in between. Everyone in that area is in the same position I am — facing big change. Late last year, the Royal Gorge Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management began evaluating a “Plan of Development” from Fort Carson. The plan proposed creating 43 landing zones on public lands in Fremont, Park and Teller counties for High Altitude Mountain Environment Training, acronym HAMET. The Army proposal specifies the landing zone locations and tallies their total ground area at just over 234 acres.
But landing zones are a tiny fraction of the landscape involved in these military maneuvers. In addition to practicing takeoffs and landings, pilots will conduct exercises as low as 25 feet above the ground near the landing zones. Low-level maneuvers, at heights of 80-200 feet, could occur anywhere in five designated Mountain Training Areas. The Army doesn’t tally the acreage of those training areas, but they form an enormous patchwork stretching from northwest of Cripple Creek almost 19 miles south, to Highway 50. They include private property, cultural and historic sites, ranchland under conservation easement, bighorn sheep habitat, and portions of Wilderness Study Areas.
The Army estimates 1,456 landings each year in each of the 43 landing zones. Those numbers could grow, since Fort Carson is expanding its Combat Aviation Units, but the plan also calls for this area to serve as the primary HAMET site for helicopter pilots in all branches of the military. Dozens of helicopters could be out training every day (or night) of the year.
Those 234 acres would take quite a beating from 62,608 landings per year. The broader issue, though, is noise. Up here, helicopter clatter echoes and reverberates off the mountainous terrain. For wildlife, noise from HAMET operations would disrupt feeding, communication, breeding and migration activities — never mind the potential for injury from panicked flight. Deer, elk and cattle would avoid areas of frequent helicopter use, creating grazing pressure on quieter spots and effectively reducing the carrying capacity of the entire region. As for people, anyone who hikes, bikes, hunts, camps or runs livestock on public lands in the region will feel — and hear — the changes.
But because the Mountain Training Areas are so huge, HAMET isn’t just a public lands issue. Noise from overflight, landings and low-level exercises would become a daily reality over hundreds of thousands of acres. In a place where property values depend on intangibles like tranquility, privacy and clean air, the persistent background drone of choppers, not to mention the chance that an Apache helicopter might blast over a ridge or hover near a house, could undermine real estate values and erode the local tax base. Residents and visitors alike will also face increased risk of wildfires, helicopter crashes and accidents caused by rubber-necking drivers and bolting horses. Emergency response, the Army has flatly stated, will be the responsibility of the local (mostly volunteer) agencies.
Back in the 1980s, Fort Carson relied on eminent domain to obtain about half the land for the 235,000-acre Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site in southeastern Colorado. The Army needn’t resort to anything so drastic in this case. By locating the landing zones on public land and exploiting FAA regulations that allow helicopters to fly below 500 feet, Fort Carson hopes to create what is, in fact if not in name, a massive, new military training zone in Colorado.
Big change, indeed. The public comment period for the BLM’s scoping report on this proposal is open until April 10, 2015, blm.gov/23ld.
Andrea M. Jones is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer in Fremont County, Colorado, and the author of Between Urban and Wild: Reflections from Colorado.
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