By Melanie Rowland
In his My Turn column (Sept. 16), Jim Pigott chided the editor of the Methow Valley News and others who object to the U.S. Army’s proposal to conduct mountain helicopter training in the North Cascades. While many believe that the proposal is bad for the land and bad for our recreation-based economy, Mr. Pigott says we are ignoring the critical work — and need for training — of the helicopter pilots who were instrumental in fighting our recent wildfires and who rescue injured hikers in our mountains.
Not true. Helicopter pilots — both military and civilian — currently get training in other mountain areas, such as Colorado, and can continue to do so. Yes, Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) has to wait its turn for training at an established facility. But is the wish for a new Mountain Training Area (MTA) in the North Cascades enough to outweigh the environmental, economic, and social impacts to residents of, and visitors to, the Methow Valley? And how useful would it be, anyway, when the stated training need for helicopters is for 14,000 feet, and the highest proposed landing zone is under 8,000 feet?
The real impetus behind the current proposal seems to be a desire to further enhance the influence of JBLM in the military hierarchy by giving it its own MTA. JBLM has recently become home to the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, formerly based in Alaska, making it the West Coast’s largest Army base. This achievement is considered quite a coup. With the bonus of an MTA under its control, it could rent out any training slots it didn’t use to other military units, making money and further establishing its prominence and, incidentally, assuring that we live and recreate in what sounds like a war zone much of the time.
Apparently JBLM made a big mistake when the new brigade arrived from Alaska. It sent them flying off base in the local area (Tacoma and surroundings) without any environmental review or public notice. This led to vehement protest by the people who were subjected to ear-shattering flyovers night after night. The Army belatedly realized that it had failed to conduct the public notice and review process required by law (News Tribune, Aug. 4, 2013). Hence, the current scoping document, starting the process to make these flyovers legal.
It looks to me like they decided to add an MTA while they’re doing the required public process for establishing the close-in training areas. Witness the selection criteria in the scoping document: training areas should be “20 minutes flight time” from the base. That makes sense if the flights will be near Tacoma. But the proposed landing zones in the North Cascades MTA are an hour or more away. Oops.
Getting the former Alaska brigade has resulted in both enhanced funding for the base and indirect economic benefits to Tacoma and surrounding areas. In contrast, the Methow Valley will not get a penny of this money and will suffer a major threat to our economic base and the tranquility that drew many of us here.
I, for one, do not want to be a victim of JBLM’s empire-building effort. And I’m not worried that rejecting this proposal would hinder training of the heroic pilots who protect us, our homes, and our visitors. I cannot believe that what we need to assure future helicopter fire protection and mountain rescues is a highly disruptive aircraft training zone in one of the most revered natural areas in the state.
Melanie Rowland lives in Twisp.