Rowland and Maggie Coon were there representing the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC), a nonprofit community interest group that has been actively involved in a number of major local issues over the past several decades.
The topic was the U.S. Army’s proposal to create a North Cascades helicopter training area for units based out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), between Tacoma and Olympia. The Army has proposed, in what is called a “scoping document,” that helicopter pilots be allowed to practice high-altitude landings in a large area that includes the Methow Valley and much of the North Cascades.
The proposal has alarmed a lot of Methow Valley residents and part-timers, and caused a stir beyond the valley. Other environmental organizations, public interest groups and businesses have questioned the idea, and even the federal Environmental Protection Agency has raised issues with the plan. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray has expressed an “active interest” in the proposal, Rowland said, noting that “this is going to be a very political decision.”
Since news about the Army proposal first broke a couple of months ago, the deadline for public comments on the scoping document has been extended twice, to Nov. 3. MVCC hosted last week’s meeting to generate more public commentary and explain its concerns about the Army plan, which the scoping document claims is the only helicopter training regimen that is being considered. In other words, one of the world’s largest, most-sophisticated military organizations has no back-up scenario, No Plan B, for what many people believe is a deeply flawed proposal.
The MVCC’s position is not anti-military, Rowland told the assembly at the grange. But the Army proposal is incompatible with the valley and surrounding areas in many ways, she said, and the Army should be encouraged to consider alternatives. The MVCC’s point is that the Army didn’t do its homework. Now it’s about to get some schooling.
That’s the polite approach, one the MVCC hopes gets some attention. But the organization is prepared to go to court if necessary, Rowland said, adding that she expects it might be.
The MVCC has never been shy about pressing for what it believes are the valley’s best interests. It was born, as most of you either recall or learned, in the early days of the bitter dispute over a proposed mega-resort and ski area near Mazama. Ultimately, the MVCC’s legal strategy helped defeat that plan.
At the heart of the procedural matter is that the Army says the helicopter training proposal only requires an environmental analysis as opposed to a more comprehensive environmental impact statement. The MVCC disagrees, arguing that the range of possible negative consequences for the valley and beyond demands a more rigorous analysis. That’s what the MVCC is prepared to fight for in the legal arena.
Before it comes to that, there will be another round of commentary on the Army’s anticipated environmental analysis. And it’s expected that the Army will hold a public meeting in the valley to review the proposal.
One audience member at last week’s meeting asked if there might be a more favorable community reaction if the Army scaled back its proposal — could there be a compromise? Rowland didn’t dismiss that possibility. But, she pointed out, all we have is the scoping document, so that’s what we have to respond to. Some see the Army’s suggested parameters as the worst-case upper limit. But others see them as a blank check for the Army to do whatever it wants.
To be fair, the JBLM plan also has its local supporters, who point to the unquestioned need for helicopter pilot training and suggest that it won’t necessarily be all that disruptive. They need to be heard as well and respected for their point of view. Unfortunately, the alarming scope of the scoping document has almost made the need for training a secondary issue.
— Don Nelson, Editor