By Marcy Stamper
In evaluating a U.S. Army proposal to train combat helicopters in the North Cascades, U.S. Forest Service analysts will make sure the Army’s environmental analysis covers all the potential impacts to the national forest.
“They’ll do NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] the Forest Service way — all our species, our bugs, bunnies and ferns,” said Sara White, environmental program manager for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which manages the land where the majority of the training would occur.
The Forest Service, which would have to issue a special-use permit to the Army for the training, will work with Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) throughout the process to be sure that everything is addressed when the Army does its environmental review, said Kelly Underwood, who reviews applications for special uses as resource specialist for the forest.
Special-use permits are required for a wide range of activities in the national forest not covered by recreation passes, from outfitter guides to recreational residences to powerlines, said Underwood. Some permits can be for a short time — say, a two-day recreational event — while some, like a powerline, could be in effect for 30 years.
While Underwood has issued permits for land-based military training on the forest, the request from JBLM — for six high-altitude landing sites and an extensive mountain training area that would be used 365 days a year, 24 hours a day — is unusual, she said. Most training permits the Okanogan-Wenatchee has issued to the military have been for activities like mountaineering or rock climbing, generally for a week at a time, said Underwood.
JBLM submitted an initial application to the Forest Service last week, and forest staff are expected to meet about it this week, said Underwood. Neither the Forest Service nor the Army would provide a copy of the application because it is “pre-decisional,” according to both White and Gary Dangerfield, external communications chief for JBLM.
“It’s an application to do an action on the forest that has not been evaluated or processed,” said White. Releasing it at this point would invalidate the NEPA process, because something could change before plans are finalized. “We cannot risk confusing the public,” she said.
Okanogan-Wenatchee environmental program staff have asked local ranger districts to provide input as part of the current scoping phase — to identify issues the Army should address in its environmental review, said White. “We’ve asked the districts for comments, since this is just a proposal, not a well-defined project,” she said.
Resource managers with the Forest Service will review the final environmental analysis to be sure the Army hasn’t missed anything, said White. She urged the public to comment, “since they might think of species we don’t,” she said. “The more comments, the merrier.”
Members of the public have already begun commenting. Some want the Army to do an environmental impact statement (EIS), which is more in-depth than an environmental analysis.
Many say the helicopter training would harm the quiet of the mountains, endanger people and animals, and threaten the regional recreation-based economy. Others point to potential conflicts with aircraft used in firefighting and impacts on endangered species. They say the training flights should not occur over roadless and wilderness areas.
In their comments to the Army, both the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) asserted that Congressional provisions do not permit military helicopter training on Forest Service lands. FSEEE claims that Congress reserved national forests to supply water and timber and for outdoor recreation and wildlife.
The groups also contend that the Okanogan-Wenatchee’s resource management plan requires that national forest land not be used when a special use can be accommodated elsewhere.
But White pointed to a 1988 agreement between the U.S. Department of Defense and the Forest Service that states that Forest System lands provide “a variety of geographic and topographic settings to conduct training activities. This is an important resource for developing a strong National defense.”
In their comments, MVCC says the Army is obliged to consider more than one alternative for the training flights, “especially for a project of this magnitude and potential for impacts.”
The Army’s proposal includes two alternatives — the “no-action alternative,” which maintains the status quo and is always required, and the proposed off-base training areas, which includes the high-mountain training sites in the Cascades and low-elevation training areas in Western Washington.
The Army’s own environmental analysis will determine whether an EIS is necessary, once it is clear if the training would have an impact on plants, wildlife and cultural resources, said White.
The most vocal response to the proposal in the Methow Valley has been in opposition to the new training area. Two dozen community members met Friday night (July 24) to strategize about how to press the Army to do a comprehensive EIS.
But online comments to regional news coverage about the Army’s proposal include support for programs where pilots can train at high altitude for military activities, search and rescue, and firefighting. Others say the flights would be less disruptive than aircraft that already fly in the area.
The proposed mountain training area runs from south and west of Wenatchee to the Canadian border, west to the North Cascades, and east to the Okanogan Highlands. Pilots would learn to take off and land at high altitudes and pinnacles. JBLM says the new training area is needed to simulate conditions in Afghanistan at up to 14,000 feet.