Other areas in state still under review

By Marcy Stamper

The U.S. Army has dropped its plans to use landing zones in the North Cascades to train combat helicopter pilots. The decision came after a review of 2,350 public and agency comments, according to an announcement issued Thursday (April 7) by the Aviation Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM).

The landing zones “have been removed from consideration, and will not be included in any follow-up environmental assessment,” according to the statement by JBLM. The Army will still analyze potential helicopter training areas and landing zones elsewhere in the state, the statement said.

“You could say they’ve been taken off the table,” said Joseph Piek, a spokesperson for JBLM. Piek said the Army is continuing to look in central and western Washington for other potential locations to serve their training needs.

In June 2015, the Army proposed seven take-off and landing sites for high-altitude training from Entiat to the Canadian border, including three near the Methow Valley. JBLM later eliminated one site near Leavenworth because it was on the boundary of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

JBLM proposed the new landing sites to have a mountain training area close to the base, which is near Tacoma, since currently their pilots must travel to Colorado for high-altitude training. The Colorado training area poses scheduling difficulties, consumes a lot of fuel, adds to the cost of the training, and means pilots must spend time away from home, they said.

JBLM aviators need areas where they can conduct rigorous and realistic training to prepare for missions in mountainous regions of Afghanistan and other regions, according to the June 2015 proposal.

“We’re continuing to look at western and central Washington for potential helicopter landing zones that could support the required training for aviation needs at the base,” said Piek.

Piek said they are looking for areas where helicopters could leave JBLM, fly to the location, touch down, and depart, all without needing to refuel. He could not say how many miles the Black Hawk, Apache and Chinook helicopters can fly without refueling, but said they would not be able to make a round-trip to Spokane.

“There are many high-altitude areas in Washington. We just have to find a location that would be supported and agreeable to everyone,” said Piek.

“Although JBLM helicopter aircrew can conduct aerial training statewide, they can only practice approach, takeoff and landing procedures at JBLM, YTC [Yakima Training Center] and local municipal airports. This restriction concentrates training in a relatively small area near built up population centers, which increases training’s impact on residents of these areas. Creating off-base training areas and HLZs [helicopter landing zones] away from built up areas would allow aviators to train with less impact on local airports and communities,” according to the Army’s statement on the withdrawal.

‘Substantial number of comments’

Piek did not have details of the thousands of comments the Army received, and couldn’t say if the decision to eliminate the landing zones from consideration was connected with widespread opposition or other aspects of public feedback.

“That is a substantial number of comments,” said Piek, although he could not say if it was an unusually high response. “Within the environmental process, the public comment period is part of it. What’s important to realize is, this is the process working.”

The helicopter-training proposal stirred what one Methow Valley resident called “a hornet’s nest,” with people alarmed by the prospect of loud and unpredictable helicopter flights as they enjoyed the mountains. (Training flights were to occur 365 days a year and 24 hours a day, with no set schedule.) Some said a helicopter flying just a few feet above a trail posed unacceptable risks, particularly to people using horses and pack animals, since the animals could easily be spooked.

Scientists raised concerns about landing helicopters in fragile alpine environments and the potential effect on wildlife and plants.

The Army was still soliciting input for issues to address in their environmental analysis of the training proposal. The landing zones were withdrawn before the Army began the formal environmental review.

The Army’s decision removes the specific landing zones from consideration. Piek could not say if plans for other maneuvers described in the proposal, such as hovering several feet above the ground, were still under consideration.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray’s office worked with JBLM to obtain more time for people to comment on the proposal. After setting an initial one-month window for comments, the Army extended the comment period twice because of the high level of interest.

Environmental organizations from the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council through Washington Wild and the Sierra Club all sent strongly worded comments about the proposal and its potential impact on wilderness and endangered species. Last November, almost 70 conservation organizations and Washington businesses submitted a comment letter opposing the Army’s proposal. It recognized the need for quality pilot training but urged the Army to honor investments in conservation and recreation, and in the economies and quality of life of rural communities.