The proposed expansion of a military training airspace has pitted two typically friendly Northern Plains neighbor states against each other.

Montana government officials are on the attack and South Dakota officials are playing defense as federal agencies consider approval of the Powder River Training Complex.

The proposal would more than double the size of an existing airspace, from 9 million acres to 21.7 million acres, spanning parts of South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.

Leading the fight from both sides of the Montana-South Dakota border are the states’ senior U.S. senators, Jon Tester, D-Mont., and John Thune, R-S.D. Thune has been working eight years to get the airspace expansion approved.

Meanwhile, Tester’s office says he’s been working against it just as long.

This week, they traded jabs on back-to-back days.

On Thursday, Tester and newly elected Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., pledged to introduce a legislative amendment that would block low-level flights over part of the airspace in their state.

On Friday, Thune announced in celebratory fashion the Air Force’s approval of the airspace expansion, leaving only the Federal Aviation Administration left to consider it.

The airspace would be utilized primarily by B-1 bombers from Ellsworth Air Force base near Rapid City, an installation that has an estimated $350 million annual economic impact in South Dakota while employing 3,500 active-duty military personnel and 1,500 civilians. Thune and his supporters think the airspace could help solidify the future of Ellsworth, which was saved from closure in 2005.

In Montana, some ranchers, aviators, tribes and others under the airspace say increased overflights by B-1s and other aircraft would disrupt their lives and economies.

Tester’s latest move against the airspace expansion piggybacks on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring crude oil from Canada to the Unites States on a route that includes Montana and South Dakota. The Senate is considering a bill that would authorize construction of the pipeline, and both Tester and Thune support the pipeline. President Obama has said he would veto the pipeline bill.

Tester’s amendment to the pipeline bill would block low-level flights between 500 feet above ground level and 12,000 feet in a portion of the proposed airspace above the Baker, Mont., area. Tester said there is a “crucial on ramp” there for oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation. The amendment would impose low-level flight prohibitions over about 13 percent of the training area, according to Tester's office.

In a Thursday news release, Tester said “the Air Force’s proposed expansion could put Montana pilots at increased risk and create problems for emergency services that are critical to the pipeline’s success.”

Marnee Banks, Tester’s communications director, said Tester was unavailable for comment Friday. When asked why an airspace would threaten an underground pipeline, she said some pipeline inspections are conducted from the air.

“Senator Tester believes the airspace should be safe over the pipeline,” she said.

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Thune spent Friday morning in Rapid City conducting a public town hall meeting at the Performing Arts Center. Before the event, he said Tester’s amendment, if adopted, would cause the airspace to lose some of its functionality.

“If you start tweaking or messing with it now, you probably impair the number and the types of training opportunities that are available there,” Thune said. He and other backers of the expansion have said it is one way to protect the future of Ellsworth, the Black Hills region's largest employer.

Later Friday, after reviewing the Tester-Daines amendment, Thune’s office said the targeted area would be utilized 10 days per year for a total of roughly 86 hours annually, during large-scale exercises involving about 20 aircraft. The area is viewed as a necessary part of the overall plan, and Thune’s office said any changes to the airspace would require a new review process by the Air Force, which took eight years to produce Friday’s decision.

Thune said the Air Force has conducted 20 public meetings and fielded 2,000 comments on the proposal. Numerous modifications to the original proposal were made along the way.

“If you take a look at the mitigations in place by the Air Force to try to address the concerns from residents and stakeholders, it is pretty clear that impacts will be minimal,” said Thune, who also pledged to work with and monitor the Air Force to make implementation of the airspace “as painless as possible” for those living under it.

Tester’s opposition to the Ellsworth-related project puts him in the crosshairs of not only Thune, but also other other South Dakota politicians. One is Thune’s fellow Republican Mike Rounds, who made Ellsworth’s future a major part of his winning Senate campaign in the fall.

Then-candidate Rounds claimed his Democratic opponent, Rick Weiland, was aligned with a group that wanted to close Ellsworth.

Rounds based the claim on Weiland’s endorsement from the Council for a Livable World in Washington, D.C. Rounds said the council wants to wipe out the B-1 bomber program stationed at Ellsworth. The council and Weiland denied that claim, saying the council had only been against the B-1s during the 1980s when they carried nuclear weapons; Rounds was undeterred and insisted a vote for Weiland was a vote against Ellsworth.

The Council for a Livable World’s political action committee, its employees and their families have given a combined $92,830 to Tester since his first run for the Senate in 2006, according to Influence Explorer, a Sunlight Foundation website that compiles campaign finance data.

Only two members of Congress have received more financial support via the council since 1989, the earliest year of records on the website. Only two contributors have directed more money to Tester during his Senate career.

Marnee Banks, Tester’s communications director, gave the following answer when asked if the Council for a Livable World’s support is influencing Tester’s opposition to the airspace expansion: “The senator has been listening to Montanans about the expansion of the Powder River Training Complex since his first days in the Senate. That’s his reason for opposing the expansion.”

Angela Canterbury, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, denied any connection between her organization’s support for Tester and his opposition to the airspace expansion. “We don't have any position on Ellsworth, or any other base,” she said.

Thune was also asked if he thinks the Council for a Livable World’s support is influencing Tester.

“That’s not for me to say,” Thune said, “but that is a very liberal organization that in the past has been very anti-bomber, anti-military, period."

“I think there’s a constituency in Montana that’s opposed to this, and he is hearing from them, and that’s politics,” Thune said.

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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