Air Force plans for a bomber training range over Eastern Montana are still flying, despite no noticeable signs of progress over the past two years.
Ellsworth Air Force Base officials say plans for a South Carolina-sized training area over portions of four western states are moving ahead. A key piece of the approval process, a final environmental impact statement, has not been finalized. Spokesman Maj. Matthew Reese said the EIS is out of Ellsworth’s hands. The base has moved on to arranging meetings with state and tribal governments in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota.
“Right now we are getting all the parties together via teleconference to talk about their concerns,” Reese said. “We’ve done that a couple times.”
There were numerous concerns when the Air Force held public hearings about the 27,500-square-mile Powder River Training Complex in 2009. Namely, ranchers raised concerns about range fires caused by flares dropped from bombers during practice. The flares, and concerns about livestock stressed by flyovers, were common, though Air Force officials said that flares dropped from the altitude at which B-1B Lancers and B-52 Stratofortress bombers fly would burn out before hitting the ground.
But the Air Force has changed bomber exercises in the past to accommodate ranchers and would in the proposed training area, said Lt. Col. Brian Farmer.
The Air Force needs the training complex, Farmer said. Bomber pilots have a smaller, triangle-shaped training area that stretches from Ellsworth into Montana, where it spans the mostly empty miles between Baker and Broadus. But for effective training, bombers fly to Nevada and Utah, which takes time and money.
"It takes them an hour to two hours to get there," Farmer said. "We need to have a place where we can train in our backyard."
Ellsworth's neighbors have given the proposal a cool reception.
Two years ago, U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked the Air Force not to expand the PRTC into southeastern Montana. The senators called the bomber activity too disruptive to ranching and farming and a threat to commercial and private aviation in the area. The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America issued the same warning.
The Air Force proposal is for the bombers to fly faster than the speed of sound roughly 10 days year, Farmer said.
The National Parks Service advised the Air Force in late 2011 that the sound disturbance could adversely affect visitors’ experiences at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and other sites. The National Parks Service requested that the Air Force fly clear of the Little Bighorn Battlefield and Custer National Cemetery.
Half of the proposed training complex would be over Montana, stretching from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota to a buffer area surrounding Billings.
Farmer said the Air Force is working to address sound disturbance issues by, among other things, flying at higher altitudes to accommodate sensitive areas.
Farmers said he expects the Powder River Training Complex approval process to be finished by summer and flights through the area to begin late this year or early next.