McKinley goes to Vegas to fight military flyovers

As part of the required National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, officials from the U.S. Air Force and Clovis’s Cannon Air Force Base held another public hearing last night in Las Vegas about its plans for low-altitude tactical navigation (LATN) training flights over southeast Colorado and eastern New Mexico. As has been the case at other meetings held over the past year, more opponents than supporters showed up. But for the first time, one of the plan’s legislative doubters made an appearance.

The mission flights would occur Monday through Friday and often at night, with 700 missions planned annually, and the LATN map includes 36 Colorado counties and 19 in New Mexico and consists of parts of Santa Fe County and the towns of Las Vegas and Taos. The military says the flights are essential to national security (and operates them as part of a special operations program at Cannon). The aircraft flying at altitudes as low as 300 feet would include the C-22 Osprey and the C-130 Hercules.

“We ran a bill last year that said there would be no low-level flyovers over Colorado,” Colorado state representative Wes McKinley told last night’s crowd. “The reason being protecting the property rights. And low-level flying is a property taking.”

In the eyes of Carol Miller, of the Peaceful Skies Coalition, one of many groups who’ve organized in opposition to LATN proposal, and who also attended last night’s hearing, these flights are about far more than just property rights.

“It’s destructive to the environment, it’s destructive to the community economies, and it’s a waste of money for more militarism while many more important needs are being cut or eliminated,” said Miller. “This was another very powerful outpouring of community anger against this proposal, but for the military, it’s another checkbox in the NEPA process.”

Citing the possible impact of the flights on tourism, on outdoor recreation, on local wildlife, and pointing out too the possibility of airplane crashes (the Osprey has a notorious reputation as being accident-prone) or refueling accidents, as well as pointing out the concerns over the high decibel levels of noise generated by the planes, Peaceful Skies and other groups and opponents again voiced their dismay at the proposed flights, which constitute 60,000 square miles and would comprise an area four times larger than the current largest U.S. Air Force airspace in Nevada.

“We are focused on helping to increase public comment to the Environmental Assessment,” said Miller, referring to the hearings, which are scheduled to end on November 5th. “Unless the New Mexico and Colorado congressional delegations request a 60-day extension.”

After November 5th, the Air Force will issue its final decision to either move forward with its LATN plan or to implement an Environmental Impact Statement, which most groups advocate as something already needed. Several groups, Peaceful Skies among them, have said they will sue for if the Air Force does not go ahead with one.

“This is not a Taos issue, it is a national issue,” said Miller. “Nor is it about who’s patriotic and who isn’t. It’s about the military upholding the laws of the U.S. They’re not. They’re mocking the constitution.”

Or, as McKinley put it to the crowd last night: “What’s the Environmental Assessment of our constitutional rights?”

Miller later claimed that the Air Force has already taken some of the $300 million it received from Congress and and the $5 million it has received from the state of New Mexico to buy water rights, to construct a new school in Clovis and for a new gate for Cannon. And all of which, said Miller, is a violation. “It’s illegal for them to be spending money while the NEPA process is under way.”