Over the weekend, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force released its Final Environmental Impact Statement assessing three alternative routes for expanding F-16 pilot training airspace for Holloman Air Force Base in Albuquerque.
One of the expanded Military Operations Areas under consideration would have directed 10,000-plus supersonic flights annually over Truth or Consequences and other 1-25 corridor communities. Another proposed alternative would have seen training flights, which involve the discharge of flairs and chaff, conducted over the heart of the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness Areas to our southwest.
The Final EIS was published on a special-purpose website without fanfare. It disclosed that the Air Force had chosen as its “preferred alternative” the expansion of the “Talon” MOA that Holloman currently uses over southeastern New Mexico, east of Alamogordo. No rationale for the choice, apart from previously published criteria, was provided.
Clearly, public pressure played a role. The Talon alternative was favored by a broad coalition of conservation groups, concerned citizens, community and government leaders, sportsmen and aviators as the least likely to do harm. During the public comment period for the Draft EIS, which began on Nov. 1, 2019, and ended on Jan. 31, 2020, southern and southwestern New Mexicans submitted thousands of comments in person at hearings and in writing, documenting and objecting to the impact on the environment, wildlife, outdoor recreation, tourism, real estate values and peace and quiet should the Air Force begin flying 10,000-plus training missions over their heads.
Many of these overflights would have been conducted at low altitudes and involved the discharging of magnesium flares, a potential fire hazard, and “defensive chaff”—shreds of aluminum, fiberglass and plastic deployed by the military to evade radar detection—a suspected contaminant.
The day the website went live, Peaceful Gila Skies, a coalition leader, released a press release headlined “Holloman Air Force Base decision a victory for New Mexico wilderness, public lands.”
“New Mexicans respectfully sent a loud and clear message that the places we visit to find solitude and enjoy nature are not appropriate for military combat training. Today’s announcement by the Air Force reaffirms the notion that constructive public advocacy can lead to positive outcomes,” coalition member, Mark Allison, executive director at New Mexico Wild, said in the release. “We greatly appreciate the important role Holloman Air Force Base plays in our national security, and salute Defense Department officials for honoring their commitment to a fair and open public process, for hearing community concerns, and for ultimately reaching the correct decision.”
The publication of the Final EIS (which can be read in full here) initiates a 30-day waiting period before the Record of Decision is signed and goes into effect, ending several years of uncertainty about the Air Force’s intentions.