Gazette opinion: Powder River Range: FAA bombs on public participation

2014-04-02T00:00:00Z 2014-04-02T14:47:05Z Gazette opinion: Powder River Range: FAA bombs on public participation The Billings Gazette
April 02, 2014 12:00 am

When the U.S. Air Force first proposed using one-fifth of Montana’s airspace for a bomber testing range, ranchers and pilots objected.

That was six years ago. Since then the skies over southeastern Montana have gotten a lot busier, especially with traffic in and out of the Bakken oil fields. On the ground, ranchers worried about impacts on livestock from aircraft flying as low as 500 feet, sonic booms and aircraft dropping flares and chaff from higher elevations. Recent summers of devastating wildfires have done nothing to allay fears of fire risk from bomber training flights.

Delegation weighs in

Montana’s U.S. senators, Jon Tester and John Walsh went on record opposing the expansion over Montana airspace in February. More recently, the senators called on FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to allow the public more opportunity to comment. The FAA isn’t accepting public comment electronically and the proposal isn’t readily available to the public. Walsh and Tester told Huerta that the FAA should accept public comment online, as most federal agencies do, and that the public should have 90 days to comment online. Presently, the comment period is scheduled to end May 3.

On Tuesday, Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., wrote to Huerta, noting Montanans’ concerns saying: “I will not support the expansion unless the Air Force, working with the FAA and Montana stakeholders, makes additional mitigations that satisfy these objections.” Daines also asked that the comment period be extended beyond May 3 and that the FAA “remedy concerns” about the comment process.

All cost, no benefit

We concur with our congressional delegation’s call for giving Montanans a reasonable opportunity to comment on this proposal. Setting up online comments should take a competent IT staffer an hour, maybe less. And for goodness sake, lengthen the public comment period. This project has been kicked around for six years, another 90 days isn’t a major delay.

As for the project itself, we note that it is all cost and no benefit to our state. The Powder River Training Complex already in operation includes Broadus and the southeast corner of Montana. The proposed quadrupling of the range would consume airspace over Hardin and nearly as far west as Billings. It would stretch north nearly to Interstate 90 and swallow up Colstrip and Baker. As previously reported by The Gazette, the proposed range would cover 33 small airports in Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota.

Most of the flight area would be over Montana, but all of the benefit would accrue to the Dakotas where the aircraft using this training space are based. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., is pressing for quick approval so Ellsworth Air Force Base will have more flight space. Aircraft from Minot, N.D., also use the Powder River Training Complex. Perhaps the bulk of the training area should be over North and South Dakota where the crews are based.

Walsh previously told The Gazette that there is too much at stake beneath the proposed training area.

“Many of the more than 4,000 pilots in our state would be impacted, which is why it is crucial that they, as well as other stakeholders, are aware of this study and have ample time to comment,” Tester and Walsh said in their March 24 letter to Huerta.

The FAA should post the plan on its website, extend the comment deadline 90 more days and make the decision that protects public safety in a region that depends on small civilian aircraft for daily transportation and commerce. Send the Air Force back to the drawing board for a better plan.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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