The U.S. Air Force is proposing up to 10,000 F-16 fighter jet "sorties" a year over the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wildernesses and Gila National Forest in southern New Mexico. The area’s wild character would no doubt be harmed by the invasion and noise of these countless military overflights, including those just 100 feet above the ground, and the flares and chaff they will drop.
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World’s First Wilderness Area Under Attack
Donna Stevens, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance
Aldo Leopold is turning over in his grave. His visionary proposal for a wilderness area in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest came to fruition in 1924, when the Forest Service administratively designated it the world’s first wilderness area, the Gila Wilderness, four decades before the Wilderness Act designated the area by statute. Leopold could not have known that this beautiful, rugged land, meant to be protected in perpetuity, would be under attack almost a century later.
Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico, is proposing to expand its military training airspace over the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas, Gila National Forest, and surrounding rural communities. It is planning 10,000 F-16 fighter jet overflights per year, with 10 percent to be flown at night, 10 percent supersonic, and an unspecified number at very low levels, down to just 100 feet above the ground.
Flares and chaff
Holloman’s proposed action includes the dropping flares and chaff, designed to create an “electronic cloud” to prevent radar detection. Flares allegedly burn out far above ground level, but there are documented cases of them being mistakenly released at low altitudes, reaching the ground and igniting fires. (A 2007 New York Times article reports a New Jersey wildfire started by a flare dropped by an F-16, necessitating the evacuation of more than 2,500 residents).
On July 11, 2017, seven wildfires were ignited on state and federal lands in southeastern Oregon; state and federal agencies are investigating whether those fires were caused by military training exercises conducted that day. Concern about wildfires runs high in communities adjacent to the Gila National Forest, where the 2013 Whitewater-Baldy Fire, the largest wildfire in the state’s history, burned almost 300,000 acres. Add drought and climate change to a long-lived burning flare, and you have a perfect recipe for a conflagration.
Chaff bundles contain up to 5,000,000 aluminum-coated glass fibers up to two inches long, designed to stay airborne as long as possible and settle to the earth after several hours. Military studies on the effects of chaff on wildlife, humans, and water quality leave many questions unanswered. For example, does inhaled or ingested chaff impair wildlife and livestock health? When chaff lands in rivers and streams, does it affect aquatic life and water quality?
Numerous studies document that aircraft noise, especially from supersonic flights, has serious health impacts on humans and wildlife alike. Many hikers have experienced military aircraft that seem to come from out of nowhere, causing one to reflexively hit the deck in self-defense. When our heart rates settle down, we recognize that we are not under attack, but animals have no such realization, and may experience increased stress, and, as a result, decreased feeding and breeding success.
Opposition to Gila flyovers is not a narrow-minded position of not-in-my-backyard. The Gila Wilderness is, to borrow a Ken Burns phrase, one of America’s best ideas. Its wild character would no doubt be harmed by the invasion and noise of countless overfights, including those just 100 feet above the ground, the flares, and the bundles of chaff, not to mention the potential human-ignited fires that may result from inappropriately released flares.
As wilderness historian Roderick Nash said, “Take away wilderness and you take away the opportunity to be American.” While military flights don’t technically “take away” wilderness, that may be the end result.
When the wilderness is no longer a quiet refuge, where do we go to escape the noise and stress and insanity of urban life? This is more than a rhetorical question, and opposition to military flights over the Gila is decidedly not an anti-military stance. Holloman Air Force Base already has ample protected airspace in which to practice military maneuvers, provided by nearby White Sands Missile Range (3,200 square miles), Fort Bliss Army Base (1,700 square miles), and two existing Military Operations Areas.
Air Force outreach
Holloman Air Force Base did a very poor job – whether intentionally or not – of informing Silver City and surrounding communities about its proposed action, and held its public meetings in towns largely unaffected by the overflights. By the time the conservation community in Silver City (the largest town in the affected area at almost 10,000 residents) learned of Holloman’s proposal, the comment deadline had already passed. Local outrage and a request from concerned county commissioners persuaded an Air Force representative to attend a public meeting, at which very little information was revealed. Subsequent Freedom of Information Act requests resulted in similar opacity, as page after redacted page told us nothing.
Holloman Air Force Base is scheduled to release its draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) in late spring or early summer, when there will be opportunities for public input.
What you can do
If you’d like to be informed of the release of the DEIS, sign up at hollomanafbairspaceeis.com
Sign a petition opposing military flights over the Gila.
Please help keep Aldo Leopold’s legacy alive, and let him rest in peace once again.
Photo: Kevin Gruenwald, USAF