Potential impact on wilderness areas, recreationists cited
By Marcy Stamper
A proposal to train U.S. Army helicopter pilots in the mountains in a large area that includes the Methow Valley has stirred up what one person called a “hornet’s nest” because of the potential impact on hikers, horseback riders and others who prize mountain trails for their peace and quiet.
Biologists have cited risks to fragile alpine environments, plants and wildlife.
Others are concerned that the Black Hawk, Apache and Chinook helicopters will shatter the quiet even at lower elevations as they fly to and from the six proposed high-mountain landing areas, three near the Methow and three closer to Chelan and Entiat.
“I am passionate about this. They ought to leave this beautiful, pristine place alone,” said Pearl Cherrington of Twisp, who is urging people to submit comments for the Army’s environmental analysis. “They have stepped on a hornet’s nest—and I’m the hornet,” she said.
The Aviation Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) wants a new mountain training area that would allow combat pilots to experience the wind and atmospheric instability that could be encountered in helicopter take-off, landing and overall handling, according to its proposal. The Army is currently seeking what are called scoping comments, which identify topics it should address in analyzing the environmental impact.
The Army’s proposal provides longitude and latitude coordinates for the landing sites. The coordinates put one of the areas near the Pacific Crest Trail and the headwaters of the Methow River, one near Martin Mountain and Cooney Lake (above Gold Creek), and one near Tiffany Mountain. The other landing sites are near Lake Chelan and Entiat, with one on the boundary of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.
Cherrington said trails in these areas are popular with hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders and motorcyclists. She raised the specter of people camping at Cooney Lake and having their sleep disrupted as the helicopters land and take off again, since most training would occur at night.
Others say the training flights would have impacts far more serious than sleep disruption. “When you have a helicopter — or several helicopters — coming fast and near the ground, it could easily cause a horse, mule or a whole pack-string to panic,” said Rick Tingelstad of Twisp, who has traveled in the mountains with horses, donkeys and mules for 30 years. “It could be a death sentence for riders and animals.”
There has been widespread reaction to the ways low-flying helicopters could spoil people’s experience of wilderness. “You don’t go to places like that for noise pollution—you go to get away from noise and machinery,” said Tingelstad. “I go up to hear birds tweet, not helicopters.”
Sensitive plants, animals
Alarms have also been raised about the impact on wildlife, plants and their habitats. “I’m very concerned people will be landing heavy machinery in extremely fragile alpine environments. Once disturbed, these places cannot be mended in our lifetime,” said George Wooten, a conservation associate for Conservation Northwest, who has been reviewing the proposal for the environmental organization. “These are very fragile soils, and it would be an irreversible change.”
The Army’s proposal presents only two alternatives — using the new mountain training area plus three new lower-elevation areas in Western Washington, or no new off-base training — since all other potential locations were eliminated because they didn’t meet the Army’s criteria.
The requirement for the “‘least amount of threatened/endangered species or habitat preferred’ eliminated most of the areas due to recent listings of endangered species and habitat,” according to information provided by Gary Dangerfield, external communications chief for JBLM, in response to questions from the Methow Valley News.
The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which manages the land where most of the training would take place, is home to four federally listed species — the northern spotted owl, grizzly bear, Canada lynx and gray wolf, according to John Rohrer, range and wildlife program manager for the Methow Valley Ranger District.
When Forest Service biologists originally saw the proposal, there was concern about effects of noise on the owls during nesting season, which runs from mid-March through the end of July, although the owls’ habitat is generally below 5,000 feet, said Rohrer.
Staff with the Okanogan-Wenatchee are reviewing the proposal because the agency would need to issue a special-use permit to the Army, said Rohrer.
A primary reason the Army is seeking new training areas is to save on travel costs from the JBLM base near Tacoma. Existing mountain training areas are in Colorado and Texas, and the Yakima training area is too low, they say. These areas are also in high demand, creating scheduling problems, according to the proposal.
Having the new mountain training area would enable pilots to learn to land on pinnacles and ridgelines at from 5,753 to 7,958 feet in elevation. They would also hover a few feet off the ground and practice controlling the helicopter so that only a portion — such as a single wheel — would touch down, according to the proposal.
Aircraft will fly to and from the training area at an altitude from 500 to 2,000 feet, but they could fly higher or lower — even as low as 25 feet above the ground, depending on weather. Up to seven helicopters would be in the area at a time, according to the Army.
The Army says that only one land feature — a slope in an open area at about 5,700 feet near Entiat — has been precisely identified. “Landings to pinnacles, ridgelines, and draws are the three major training events and each requires differing techniques,” it said.
The response directed people to the scoping document for the overall locations planned. While the document includes maps, they are difficult to interpret.
Wooten questioned whether the Army’s proposal meets the stated purpose and need — to have a mountain training area that would simulate conditions in Afghanistan at up to 14,000 feet, since the proposed landing areas are considerably lower.
Shannon Polson, who flew Apache attack helicopters for the Army from 1994 through 2001 and now lives in the Methow Valley, said she is a big proponent of Army aviation and understands the need for training. “But there need to be ways to mitigate the impact on a community,” she said.
Because missiles will target anything flying above 15 meters, pilots need to practice tactical maneuvers at very low elevations, said Polson. “Flying low saves their lives,” she said. Nevertheless, Polson was concerned that the Army’s plans would mean very loud aircraft with the potential to disturb people, particularly while they are sleeping.
The pilots would comply with the Fly Neighborly Program, which crews use for route planning and while flying to avoid populated areas, according to the Army.
Pilots may stop at local airports to refuel and might purchase food or beverages in the training areas, but will generally not spend time on the ground in the training areas.
The Army is accepting comments for the scoping phase of the proposal — about which issues to address in the environmental analysis — through July 30. It plans to release a draft analysis on Sept. 1, hold public meetings in September, and issue a final environmental analysis on Oct. 30. Training would start within six to 12 months if the new area is approved.
For a copy of the scoping document or more information, visit www.lewis-mcchord.army.mil/publicworks/sites/envir/eia_HTA.aspx or call JBLM at (253) 967-1110.