Proposed Air Force bomber training complex over Wyo., Mont. concerns ranchers

Friday , March 28, 2014 - 12:23 PM

The Billings Gazette, Tom Lutey

The Air Force is pushing ahead with controversial plans for a bomber training complex that would include area over portions of northeast Wyoming.

The Air Force’s proposed Powder River Training Complex is a training area of 28,000 square miles, about the size of South Carolina.

The complex would be a training ground for B-1B Lancer and B-52 Stratofortress bombers, which fly out of Ellsworth Air Force Base, N.D., and Minot Air Force Base, S.D., respectively.

On Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration notified Montana that the Air Force is seeking approval for the training area, which was first proposed in 2008.

As a final step, the FAA is seeking public comment by April before making its decision.

“The purpose is to invite interested persons in the general public to comment. There’s a lot of people in the general aviation community who are interested,” said Debbie Alke, an administrator in the Montana Department of Transportation’s aeronautics division. “It looks like they’re going to allow any person to comment to the FAA by April 3.”

The training airspace would stretch roughly 300 miles between Billings, Mont., and Bismarck, N.D., and include portions of northwest South Dakota, northeast Wyoming and much of southwestern North Dakota. The majority of the space would be over southeastern Montana.

Ranchers and private pilots in Montana have been outspoken in opposing the training complex. On Tuesday, Montana Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh sent a letter to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III expressing their opposition to the bomber training area.

In the letter, Tester and Walsh said the training center presents a safety risk, given that a B-1B bomber from Ellsworth crashed near Broadus, Mont., six months ago.

Range fires and damage to livestock are also concerns, the senators said. There are 33 small airports in the flight area as well as sacred tribal lands and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

Walsh, a former adjutant general of the Montana National Guard, said Air Force pilots need to train, but he added that there is too much at stake beneath the proposed training area.

“This cannot come at the expense of Montana’s lands, historic sites or creating an increased risk to public safety,” Walsh said. “I, like most Montanans, oppose the expansion of the Powder River Training Complex. It would affect about one-fifth of Montana, where we would incur restricted commercial travel, disruption of livestock and unacceptable safety risks.”

In South Dakota, where Ellsworth Air Force Base is challenged for nearby bomber flight space, Republican Sen. John Thune has been urging action on the proposed training area. Last month, Thune met with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to hurry approval of the expanded bomber area.

The Powder River Training Complex would be the largest terrestrial training space over the continental United States and would allow the Air Force to conduct large-force exercises in a simulated combat environment but without live fire, according to Thune.

That’s not the kind of air traffic southeast Montana can accommodate, said Roger Meggers, who manages Baker Municipal Airport in Baker. The number of airplanes crossing this section of Big Sky Country has increased significantly with oil and gas development in the Bakken and Wyoming.

“There’s been a lot of air traffic that’s critical to the development of these oil fields,” Meggers said.

Private jets from Texas and Oklahoma have become a common sight on runways in eastern Montana and western North Dakota. The oil boom has redefined the economy for many towns in ways a bomber training area won’t, Meggers said.

The airport manager said the only community that benefits economically from the bomber flight area is Rapid City, home to Ellsworth.

“What’s in it for Montana?” Meggers said. “Nothing. There’s no job creation, no fuel taxes. All it is is an attempt to save Ellsworth Air Force Base. They should build it over South Dakota.”

But rancher Steve Rozencranz, who has lived for years in a much smaller existing training area for Ellsworth pilots, said the flights haven’t been all that disruptive.

The Air Force has accommodated ranchers in the past and stayed away during calving season and other times when bombers flying low overhead would have been problematic.

“I guess I’m not all that against it. I think they got to practice somewhere,” said Rosencranz, who is also a Carter County commissioner. “You can’t send these guys overseas and expect them to come home without any practice.”

Sign up for e-mail news updates.