Montanans not getting a fair chance to comment on bomber range, senators say

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

Montana’s U.S. senators are accusing the Federal Aviation Administration of not giving Montanans a fair chance to comment on a proposed Air Force bomber training range over southeast Montana.

Democratic Sens. John Tester and John Walsh say the FAA is not following normal federal practices for the public comment, making it difficult for Montanans to respond to Air Force plans for the Powder River Training Complex, which sprawls over an area about the size of South Carolina.

The bomber training zone stretches almost from Bismarck, N.D., to Billings and is sought by Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, where B1 bombers are stationed. Bombers using the area would release missile-distracting flares and radar-fooling clouds of chaff on a regular basis. War games involving other aircraft could also take place overhead every three months. The proposal would also allow the Air Force to break the sound barrier over U.S. soil for the first time in decades.

The FAA has given the public until April 3 to comment, but isn’t accepting emails or comments submitted online, a move Tester said turns a lot of people away. The FAA has also studied the Air Force’s plans, but only made its report available to people who previously expressed interest in the project.

The two senators wrote FAA Administrator Michael Huerta asking for a three-month extension for comments and better public access to the FAA bomber range study.

The “Powder River Training Complex encompasses a very large land area and would have significant impacts on Montana pilots and landowners in order to enhance the military value of installations in another state,” the senators wrote.

“Many of the more than 4,000 pilots in our state would be impacted, which is why it is crucial that these pilots, as well as other stakeholders, are aware of this study and have ample time to comment.”

A much smaller training area for Air Force bombers currently exists over Montana’s southeast corner and part of extreme northeast Wyoming, but the area is too small for large-scale exercises, according to Ellsworth officials.

Montana pilots in the proposed bomber area have suggested relocating the entire bomber complex to South Dakota, whose U.S. senators are asking the FAA to quickly approve the PRTC.