The U.S. Air Force has released a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for establishment of a Low Altitude Tactical Navigation (LATN) training area over much of northeastern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado. Philmont is included in the proposed training area (see map and inset below), and ranch management has been monitoring this proposal since it was first announced more than a year ago.

The proposed action is designed to provide realistic mountainous terrain for nighttime low-level training flights for the Air Force’s 27th Special Operations Wing based at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico. The draft EA released by the Air Force in late August concludes that the proposed training area “would not result in significant impacts to the quality of the human or natural environment.”

The LATN training area would be used for an estimated three missions per flying day (688 per year) for MC-130J and CV-22 Osprey aircraft operating from Cannon. Air crews would depart Cannon at dusk, enter the training area, and continue on approximately five-hour missions at altitudes from 500 to 3,000 feet above ground level. Because of the desire for variety in mission parameters and terrain, the Air Force estimates that any given location in the training area would be overflown within 1,000 feet, on average, three times per month.

Under the Air Force’s plan, Special Use Land Management Areas (SULMAs) will be designated within the training area and will be afforded protection from overflights. According to the EA:

SULMAs are specific land uses, which are sensitive to even infrequent overflight. Overflight or altitude restrictions would be established for areas such as national parks, national monuments, recreational parks during periods of heavy use, and lakes during heavy recreation times. The training area would use public and agency input to identify and either permanently or seasonally avoid noise-sensitive SULMAs to the greatest extent practicable.

The Philmont Ranch Committee’s Program and Risk Management Task Force evaluated this Air Force proposal at its fall meeting in September. The task force noted that this proposal differs greatly from the Air Force plan in the late 1990s (which Philmont and the PSA opposed) to conduct low-level bomber flights directly over Philmont up to sixteen times daily. This proposal involves far fewer flights, slower and less noisy aircraft, and night flights only, and contains provisions for protection for special use areas like Philmont.

On recommendation of the task force, the Ranch Committee adopted a resolution supporting the Air Force training proposal with the following proviso:

“The Philmont Ranch Committee requests that as the Draft Environmental Assessment is finalized that Philmont Scout Ranch in Colfax County be designated as a Special Use Land Management Area (SULMA) and that during the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day that Philmont Scout Ranch be treated as an avoidance area.

This recognizes that each day during the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day nearly 5000 Boy Scouts and their leaders from all fifty states are camping and backpacking over this wilderness area covering 137,500 acres.”

The PSA has also submitted a formal comment that supports the Ranch Committee position urging the Air Force to establish a SULMA that excludes flights over the ranch between Memorial Day and Labor day.

Ranch officials participated in public comment meetings in October to make this position known to Air Force officials. Ranch managers have also asked that flights be restricted in times of great drought and forest fire danger, such as that experienced by the ranch this year, and that any aerial refueling operations over Philmont be conducted at higher altitudes to alleviate any fire danger.

The public comment period ends in early November. The final decision and Environmental Assessment is expected as early as December.

For more information and access to a complete copy of the EA, visit the Cannon Air Force Base website at http://cannon.af.mil/

U.S. Air Force CV-22 Osprey photo by Tech. Sgt. DeNoris Mickle via Official U.S. Air Force at flickr.