Cannon Air Force Base Commander Col. Stephen Clark said communication is going to be the key to the Air Force creating a low-altitude tactical navigation area over northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
Cannon hosted eight public meetings within the proposed 94,000 square mile area that Cannon would train its MC-130 and CV-22 crews. The training would include three training flights, or sorties, a day at 200 feet and higher.
So far, the Taos, Santa Fe and Rio Arriba county commissions, along with the city councils of Las Vegas and Taos, have passed resolutions opposing the plan.
The Peaceful Skies Coalition has formed in opposition to the proposal.
Colfax County passed a resolution in support of the LATN on Friday.
The base is in the preliminary stages of establishing the area — known by the acronym LATN — which involves what Clark calls “finding out what we don’t know.”
The base will collect any comments made and hand them over to the contractor for an Environmental Assessment. After a draft of the assessment is completed, it and the revised proposal will be released for more public comment.
Col. Clark said about 500 people attended the eight meetings and about half came with comments about the LATN.
“First of all, I think most of the concerns were derived from a misunderstanding of where we are in the process. Most people were of the opinion that we were getting ready to make a decision when in fact we’re at the beginning of what is probably going to be a nine to 12 month process,” Clark said.
Other concerns, Clark said, were based on a misunderstanding of the LATN. Clark said residents believe the area would become a range, restricted airspace or special use airspace.
“It’s not what civilian populations would traditionally understand as a training range or low level route itself,” Clark said. “It’s fundamentally different than that.”
Clark explained a LATN allows Cannon to change routes on any given night, reducing their impact on the area.
“With the LATN, I’m not stuck with 10 or 12 or 15 routes. Even if the proposal changes, there is plenty of area to maneuver around so I’m not hitting the same terrain night after night...so what we think is that about every other week we might be in the same area rather than every night or every other night in the same area,” Clark said.
Clark said concerns centered around noise, livestock and animals and development such as wind turbines.
He said it would have no impact on wind turbines or any other development.
“If we get the LATN, we can maneuver around all those things where if you had a traditional MTR (military training route), a set route you have to fly every single time, if you starting building in there it starts blocking us out of that,” he said.
As for noise, Clark said that as Special Operations Forces, its mission is to bring in and bring out SOF teams undetected.
“By design, we avoid where people are. So we will look for cultural lighting, we will look for buildings, we will look for the farmhouse in the prairie or up in the mountains and avoid flying over it because if you hear me, you detected me. We will automatically by training avoid those areas.”
Clark said the Air Force can fly at 500 feet over most the area already according to Federal Aviation Administration regulations. he said aircraft will spend 90 percent of the time between 400 to 600 feet or higher and only 10 percent of the time at 200 feet.
“And that’s only when we are crossing a mountain top or ridgeline. We’re not going to come zooming over your house at 200 feet. One, we’re going to avoid your house regardless and two, if we happen to stumble upon you, we’ll be higher than that,” he said.
Clark said communication is the key.
“We are where we are. They reacted how they reacted. I think the initial comment date of 30 days spooked a lot of people into thinking we were on the heels of a decision,” Clark said. “I think it’s just good people doing honest work trying to be part of a process. As we continue to communicate with these communities and clarify, I hope they come to a little bit of a different perspective. Whether they come to another conclusion, I don’t know, but maybe they will come to a better understanding.”
Clovis Mayor Gayla Brumfield echoed Clark’s concerns.
“I think basically if they knew really what’s going on, they probably wouldn’t have the perceptions that are out there. I think if they would have had the communication and knew what was going on, there wouldn’t have been quite the uproar there was,” Brumfield said.
Brumfield said she hasn’t heard any opposition to the low-altitude flights in the area.
“Any time, if there’s anything we can help them with, we’re ready and able to do that so the wrong perceptions aren’t developed,” she said. “We’re willing to go and talk to other communities. Cannon wants to work with the people and it’s important to their mission. They don’t need to fly down to 200 feet all the time. They will come in and go back up.”
One of the Peaceful Skies Coalition founders, Cliff Bain, said the LATN is incompatible with the state’s economy.
“Based on the beauty of our environment, sacred traditions in the area around the pueblos and many of us who live there, this is a very intrusive activity,” he said.
Bain said the group doesn’t believe the Air Force’s claims that they won’t fly over homes.
“They will be flying over where people live. We value silence out here. We don’t have complete silence but we don’t live next to Kirtland or Cannon,” he said. “We’ll push this until an Environment Impact Statement.”
Environment Impact Statement is a more extensive analysis of the LATN’s impact on the environment that could take two years.
Clark said a final decision will be made by his commander.