No details yet about possible changes
By Marcy Stamper
The U.S. Army is analyzing more than 2,500 comments advising it about issues to address in evaluating the environmental impact of a proposal to train combat helicopter pilots at high altitudes near the Methow Valley and elsewhere in North Central Washington.
Initial plans were for seven high-altitude landing zones, but the June 2015 proposal by the Aviation Division with Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) did not give exact locations. While precise locations for the zones will not be available until they are finalized in the draft environmental assessment, “we understand the importance to the public the need to easily identify the locations and we’ll work to give out better descriptions,” said subject-matter experts for the Army on Nov. 19 by email.
The subject-area experts also said they had made some adjustments to the boundaries of the training area and may break up the large mountain training area into two smaller areas.
The proposed area runs from south and west of Wenatchee to the Canadian border, west to the North Cascades, and east to the Okanogan Highlands.
One of the seven proposed landing sites, called MTA 1-4 in the proposal, has been eliminated because it was just inside the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, near Leavenworth, said the Army experts.
The six other proposed sites include one near the Pacific Crest Trail and Azurite Peak, which would be used as a ridgeline landing zone; one near the headwaters of the Methow River for a multi-aircraft landing zone; and one above Gold Creek, near Martin Mountain and Cooney Lake, that would be used as a confined-area landing zone.
The other three proposed sites are a pinnacle landing zone near Lake Chelan, a ridgeline landing zone near Entiat, and a multi-aircraft landing zone near Leavenworth.
The proposal also includes three areas for lower-elevation training in Southwestern Washington.
More areas needed
The Army said it needed more high-altitude training areas — particularly ones closer to JBLM’s home base in Tacoma — to simulate conditions in Afghanistan at up to 14,000 feet.
The proposed North Cascades training sites are all under 8,000 feet, but the Army’s experts said their training guidelines state that 6,000 feet is the lowest altitude that meets the requirements for mountain environmental training.
Even with plans for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, this type of training for combat helicopter pilots is necessary. “The requirement for our forces to operate in mountainous areas exist in most parts of the world,” said the Army. The training would be for pilots of Black Hawk, Apache and Chinook helicopters.
Asked whether the environmental analysis would include alternatives other than the proposed high-altitude training area and the status quo (the “no-action alternative”), the subject-area experts said the Army is working with the U.S. Forest Service and Washington Department of Natural Resources to better define the training areas “based on information that we didn’t have prior to now.” The Forest Service would have to issue a special-use permit to the Army for the training.
“A draft EA [environmental analysis] will show the work we’ve done based on scoping comments,” said the Army experts. Scoping is the solicitation of comments about what to cover in the environmental analysis.
The new training areas are necessary because the Army is currently limited to just a few high-altitude training areas in the U.S., all of which require extensive travel time, are costly, and pose scheduling difficulties, according to the proposal.
There is no timeline yet for the release of the draft environmental analysis or public meetings about the proposal.