EditorialsClearing the air

It’s an odd coincidence that two big stories this week, both of them good news for the Methow Valley, involve aircraft — those that will be coming here, and those that won’t (see stories on page A1).

First, the U.S. Army announced that it was withdrawing a proposal to conduct helicopter pilot training exercises at high elevations in the North Cascades — a plan that would have directly affected the Methow Valley and a large surrounding area in Okanogan County. The training would originate at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), the huge military base between Tacoma and Olympia.

The Army’s plan, announced last summer, set off a firestorm of local objections because of the potential for disrupting the valley’s peace and quiet, causing damage in sensitive wilderness areas and diminishing the experience for hikers, horseback riders, backpackers and others who enjoy the outdoors.

There was never any question that the Army made its case for the necessity of high-altitude training for its helicopter pilots. Training has had to take place out-of-state because of a lack of appropriate areas relatively nearby.

Not just valley residents but also residents from around the state, and organizations concerned with outdoor activities, conservation and tourism, made it loud and clear that the Methow isn’t appropriate either.

In a statement last week, the Army said that it dropped the training plan “after analyzing the 2,350 public and private stakeholder comments received during the scoping document’s extended public comment period.” That comment period was extended twice to accommodate the volume of feedback.

We’ve been a little hard on the Army, but give the folks at JBLM credit: they listened, reconsidered and made a respectful decision. That’s a lot more than you can say for the U.S. Navy, whose attitude toward its Whidbey Island neighbors can charitably be characterized as dismissive, and which routinely sends it fighter jets flashing noisily through the Methow Valley at alarmingly low altitudes.

The valley was also at odds with another branch of the federal government, by way of state government, in an effort to block installation of a bright, rotating navigational beacon at Methow Valley State Airport. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which operates the general aviation airport, installed the beacon as part of an improvement project. The beacon system, which operated from dawn to dusk, was required by the Federal Aviation Administration, which helped fund the project.

The beacon only operated for a few nights, but anyone who was here remembers it vividly. It was a like a strobe light on steroids, a garish lash of illumination that could be seen from miles away. Those closer to the airport were blasted right out of their beds by the intrusive beams. The Methow’s dark skies were lit up like a mall parking lot.

Local reaction was immediate and intense. WSDOT shut down the beacon, heard the public out and started looking for alternatives. Last week, WSDOT announced that it will substitute a less-visible, pilot-activated light.

In each case, local activism made a difference. Without such efforts, we might be enduring Chinook helicopters flying through a nightmare of searchlights on their way to land in the wilderness.

It takes time, money and passion to get involved in such community-wide collaboration. Methow Valley residents have shown, time and again, that they’re willing to fight the good fight to preserve what’s best about this place. The current battleground is over a proposal to allow exploratory drilling for copper deposits on Flagg Mountain.

Some people may think we’re naturally contentious, but that’s not the case. We care about what happens here and aren’t shy about getting involved. And if we are loud, pushy and persistent, it’s because we have learned that’s what it takes.

Building a case

Persistence played a part in another bit of recent good news: the Town of Twisp will receive $500,000 from the state to continue its efforts to replace the town hall building, which could kindly be called decrepit.

Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody and town officials have worked with our 12th Legislative District representatives to keep funding for the project alive in the Legislature, at a time when such funds are hard to come by. Some day, when Twisp has a new civic center, we should remember to thank them.

— Don Nelson