Expanding an air force base by about 28,000 square miles is no easy task, especially when it involves four states, pleasing numerous affected parties, and navigating an approval process that takes years.
That has been the case with the attempt by Ellsworth Air Force Base to dramatically expand the size of its Powder River Training Complex, where pilots of B-1 Bombers and other military planes prepare for military missions in which our national security is often at stake.
The expansion effort that began on Dec. 2, 2008, has other major implications, from saving the military millions of dollars a year, to firming up the future of Ellsworth, the Rapid City area's biggest employer and one of its top economic engines.
After nearly six years of study, numerous public hearings across four states, about 2,000 collected public comments, and many modifications to satisfy concerns of affected parties, the decision to allow the expansion of air space could come next month, according to military and congressional leaders. During the process, the Air Force has tried to assuage the worries of a vast group of divergent groups and individuals, from ranchers to historic preservationists to Native American tribes.
If approved, flights over the expanded air space could begin next spring, said Lt. Col. Allen Barksdale, commander for the 28th operations support squadron at Ellsworth.
While some opposition remains — which military officials say is not unexpected with such a major expansion of air space for training — many of the so-called "stakeholders" who have been a part of the approval process say Ellsworth officials have done a good job of listening and reacting to public input.
The importance of securing the new air space cannot be overstated, according to U.S. Sen. John Thune, who spoke on the matter during a Rapid City town hall meeting last week.
“The bottom line is this has tremendous implications not only for our national security training purposes, but also for this area and what this training range will mean in terms of Ellsworth and its value as a military asset,” Thune said.
Why expansion is needed
At the most basic level, the Air Force wants more air space to allow for more cost-efficient and more realistic training than pilots and crews can do now in the training area that is generally northwest of the Black Hills region.
"The problem with the current space is that it's small. Our training space is 1/10th the size of Afghanistan. We need to be able to replicate those places," Barksdale said. "It's about readiness, so when the nation calls us out to fight, we're ready."
The expansion would allow for some lower flights, longer runs, faster training flights, and a more coordinated training sequence that would feel more like actual missions, officials said. Currently, the Air Force spends time training in Nevada, Utah and Idaho to do what it would be able to do closer to home if the expansion goes forward, he said.
The Air Force says it would save an estimated $20 million in fuel a year if the expansion goes through, because "85 percent of our training could take place in our back yard," Barksdale said.
"It's like being able to have the quarterback, the linebackers and the linemen all practicing in different places on the field. We would be able to have the whole team practice in the air space for the game."
The expansion would increase the training space from 3.8 million acres to about 20.3 million acres, an increase about the size of the state of South Carolina. Flying to far away training sites to find more room is not only costly and time-consuming, but it can be tricky to get access, Barksdale said.
"While they're good ranges, they're used for other things too, so it's hard to schedule time to train in some of those ranges," he said.
Ellsworth and congressional officials have long said that expanding the training ground will firm up Ellsworth's status within the military, making it less likely to be targeted during future Base Realignment and Closure cost-saving efforts.
Over the past several years, the Air Force has been analyzing the potential environmental impact of the expansion, which includes taking comments from all stakeholders involved — one of the main reasons the decision is taking so long, Barksdale said.
Those stakeholders include the National Park Service, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Native American tribes under the expansion proposal, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, state historical preservation offices, ranchers, civilian aviators and landowners.
"This is a multifaceted project," Barksdale said. "There is a lot of interaction and it's very complicated working through all of the legal requirements under the National Historic Preservation Act. You have to factor all of those in."
Over the last several years, Barksdale said, the Air Force has taken in over 2,000 comments from stakeholders. He said the Air Force is trying to address all of the concerns, but in a way which will also allow them to train effectively. He said so far there has been a good relationship with the stakeholders and that most people understand the necessity to train. Barksdale also said the original proposal has changed quite a bit since 2008 to accommodate issues that have been raised.
One major focus has been to preserve the area's history and historical artifacts, which could be affected by increased flights overhead or dropping of non-live ordinance.
Under section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, all agencies of the federal government are required to do a review anytime it takes on an undertaking. Those undertakings can include granting a permit or doing something through the Corps of Engineers, such as granting a permit for water crossing, said Bruce Milhans, a spokesman for the historic advisory council.
"It needs to be determined if there are any historic properties that might be affected by whatever the undertaking does," Milhans said.
The process also requires an agreement between the leading agency, in this case the Air Force, and the stakeholders, Milhans added, which explains what steps will be taken by the parties in order to meet their environmental compliance responsibilities.
Ultimately, even with the stakeholders opinions taken into account, the decision is still up to the leading agency, and there does not have to be an outcome for preservation, Milhans said.
"We certainly want there to be an outcome for preservation, and we want the views respected, but ultimately it's up to the agency to make the choice to avoid, mitigate or modify what they would do based on their consultation," he said. "No one is 100 percent satisfied with a 106 case — it's almost impossible to make everyone happy. But we're here to make sure the process is followed."
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A total of 239 National Register of Historic Places listed properties are located belowh the affected airspace, said Katharine Kerr, advisory council case manager for the expansion.
Of these 239 potentially-affected properties, 94 listed properties are currently under the existing airspace, Kerr added.
The proposed complex, which includes the existing Powder River Military Operations Area/Air Traffic Control Assigned Airspace, would fly over 14 national historic listed properties in Wyoming, 35 in Montana, 15 in North Dakota and 175 in South Dakota, Kerr said.
"A number of ghost towns, historic ranches, historic trails, traditional cultural properties, cultural landscapes and National Historic Landmarks are also in the area," she said.
While noise issues are one of the top concerns among stakeholders, the potential for planes to crash also comes up, Barksdale said. A year ago, an Ellsworth B-1 Bomber crashed in a remote area of southeastern Montana. Before that, the last crash was in 2002, Barksdale said.
"Aviation is inherently dangerous, so that risk exists," he said. "I don't want it to happen, but we've developed a good relationship with local authorities to protect lives on the ground and the air crew to take care of anything that happens."
Although crashes do happen, it's pretty infrequent, Barksdale said.
Ranchers have also brought their worries about how low-flying jets may affect their operations, and military officials say they have taken steps to dramatically reduce the chance of noise issues.
Barksdale said that during calving season, ranchers can call in with a time and location where calving occurs, and the Air Force will tell pilots to avoid those areas.
"We've done a good job with that," he said. "The ranchers I've heard from haven't had any problems so far."
And overall, those who have raised issues appear to be satisfied with the Air Force's responses.
Despite some frustrations and differences of opinion, the Air Force "has done a good job of following the technical process and taking everything into account," said Katherine Ore, compliance officer for the Montana Historical Preservation Society.
It's been a long and complex process, she said, because the expanded air space has mostly indirect impacts on historic property.
"Usually there is a building or something going up with a direct impact, but this is more of an indirect, auditory impact," she said. "There have definitely been problems with communication barriers between our offices, but we've been able to get over that and they've done a good job with everything."
Some opposition remains
But not everyone is in favor of an expansion, even at this late date.
Conrad Fisher, Northern Cheyenne Tribal Historic Preservation Officer in Montana, said he has major concerns with the expansion regarding cultural integrity of tribal historic sites.
Rock art could be diminished from low flyover, there are concerns about the migration patterns of wildlife, he said. There is also a potential for a number of after-burns of flyovers that could lead to fires, and there are concerns of the effects of ceremonial and spiritual events and activities, Fisher said.
"Because of the status of having a reservation, we feel we should have a right to not have these types of disturbances and that we should have some control to Federal Indian policy, to sovereignty or human rights issues," he said. "Those are critical in keeping the integrity of the Cheyenne Nation."
Fisher said representatives of the Air Force have met with him twice, but the last time they were on the reservation, the tribe didn't feel like it was a well-attended scoping session with the tribal government.
"So we did our own internal scoping to determine what the people here on the reservation wanted," he said. "Overwhelmingly, for a number of different reasons, the people said they did not want to see a flyover."
The Air Force could fly its planes as low as 500 feet above sea level, or as high as 1,200 feet above sea level, Barksdale said. He said the expansion proposal has been modified to address concerns that arose out of Montana.
"The initial proposal was 500 to 1,200 feet above sea level, but we've taken those concerns and we've cut out the air space in Montana to modify it based on the feedback from the FAA and rancher aviation," he said.
In the end, some stakeholders say the benefits of expansion simply outweigh the concerns over indirect impacts.
Ted Spencer, director for the South Dakota Historical Society, sees the benefits of an expansion, even with the concerns that have been brought up.
Spencer received the final agreements of the expansion from the Air Force in July, and said from his perspective there weren't any real issues.
"But we can only speak for the state of South Dakota," said Spencer, a retired Air Force pilot. "A few of the tribal elders have said things to me along the lines of 'if it's going to enhance national security, we really can't object.' What's good for Ellsworth is good for the Black Hills region and Rapid City."