Baucus, Tester fight to protect southeastern Montana from Powder River expansion

Senators Urge Air Force to Withdraw Expansion that would Put Montana Jobs in Jeopardy

(Washington D.C.) – Montana’s U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester this week urged the Air Force not to expand training airspace for North and South Dakota Air Force Bases, known as the Powder River Training Complex, into large areas of southeastern Montana.  The Senators said such an expansion would disrupt ranching and farming and threaten commercial and private aviation jobs in the area.  

“The proposed Powder River expansion would put Montana jobs in jeopardy at a time when we need folks working more than ever.  Instead, we’re asking the Air Force to work with us to make use of airspace we already have in Montana in a way that will support jobs and offer even better training by incorporating F-15 fighters at MANG,” Baucus said. “Training airspace is critical to our national security.  But the proposed Powder River expansion just doesn’t make sense.  It’s no good for Montana, and it’s not our only option.  We are committed to making sure Montanans’ voices are heard, and we’ll keep fighting the Powder River expansion while working with the Air Force to use Montana airspace in a way that supports Montana jobs and improves national security.”

“There’s no doubt the Air Force needs space to train and to continue keeping America secure, but since there are other options on the table, I can’t support an expansion of training space into Montana that could cost us jobs and business,” Tester said.  “We’re going to keep working with the Air Force to find a solution that won’t disrupt the businesses and livelihoods of farms, ranches and communities in southeast Montana.”

“Expanding Powder River into more of southeastern Montana would disturb livestock and threaten the ranching way of life here," said Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund. "R-CALF is grateful to Senators Baucus and Tester for standing up for Montana ranchers and all of the folks in southeastern Montana and saying no to the Powder River expansion.”

The existing Powder River training airspace covers 8,200 square nautical miles in South Dakota, Wyoming and a small portion of southeastern Montana.  Approximately 50-60 percent of the Air Force’s proposed expansion is over Montana.  While a recent draft Environmental Impact Statement  produced by the Air Forced describes this area as “primarily rural and uninhabited in character,” it would in fact include the towns of Colstrip, Hardin and Baker, along with the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indian reservations.

The Powder River Training area is used for training bombers from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. The negative effects of expanding the training exercises would, however, fall on Montana ranchers, farmers and residents in the area.  Baucus and Tester outlined these harmful effects and reiterated their strong opposition to the expansion in a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz yesterday. 

Baucus and Tester cited the potential disruption of commercial and private aviation that could costs jobs that generate $3.8 million in economic activity. The senators also noted the bombers used in these training exercises fly fast enough to break the sound barrier and regularly reach noise levels that cause disruption to residents, livestock and wildlife in the area.  Baucus and Tester also highlighted other negative consequences of expanding the training area, including: fire hazards from Air Force training exercise flares, the disruption of Montana emergency medical flights, and potential damage to the Little Big Horn National Battlefield.

The Senators also urged the Air Force to consider using the F-15 aircraft stationed at Great Falls to improve the air-to-air training scenarios  available to the Air Force bomber fleet. Baucus and Tester suggested that the Air Force utilize other airspace currently available in Montana, such as the Hays Military Operations Area in north-central Montana.  Hays is larger than Powder River and could provide realistic training scenarios when combined with exercises for the F-15 fighters at the Montana Air National Guard (MANG) Station in Great Falls.  In November, Baucus, Tester and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer pressed Secretary Donley and General Schwartz for answers on the proposed change from an F-15 to a C-27J flying mission for MANG in Great Falls.  That announcement is available here.

Baucus and Tester have been fighting for years to protect Southeastern Montana from the Powder River expansion.  The Senators sent a letter to the Air Force in 2008 and met with Secretary Donley and General Schwartz in Great Falls to express their opposition that same year.  The Montana Department of Transportation has also joined Baucus and Tester in opposing the expansion.

Text of Baucus and Tester’s letter is attached and follows below:

December 21, 2010

Dear Secretary Donley and General Schwartz:

We have reviewed the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed Powder River Training Complex (PRTC) expansion and we write to express our continued opposition to the Air Force’s proposal to expand the Ellsworth AFB and Minot AFB bomber training airspace into large areas of southeastern Montana.  The plan to expand the PRTC to 28,000 square miles – roughly the size of South Carolina – does not make sense and would negatively impact Southeast Montana in a number of ways.

The proposed PRTC expansion would significantly disrupt commercial and private aviation in Southeast Montana.  As the State of Montana and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association stated in their filings of public comment, at least 33 community airports with 285 general aviation aircraft could be affected by the Air Force’s proposal.  The PRTC will affect hundreds of commercial flights and could disrupt operations at Billings Logan International Airport. The Montana Economic Impact of Airports Study concluded that the PRTC could jeopardize 95 jobs that generate $1.5 million in annual payrolls, and $3.8 million in overall economic activity. In this tough economy, this is simply unacceptable.

The PRTC expansion proposal also creates a number of unacceptable safety risks. We are concerned that the use of live flare and chaff release could cause wild fires that endanger lives and property. Although we appreciate the Air Force’s goal of limiting flare use to above 2,000 feet above ground level (AGL), the reality is that routine low-altitude training raises the possibility of accidental use below 2,000 feet AGL. Although the PRTC EIS acknowledges that flares accidentally deployed below authorized altitudes – as well as flares that do not ignite properly – would pose increased fire risks, the EIS does not provide a plan for responding to such fires.  Furthermore, flights that break the sound barrier and fly as low as 500 feet above ground level will stress livestock and wildlife living under the affected airspace.

The PRTC expansion could also disrupt emergency medical flights into or out of Southeast Montana. Medical flights in southeastern Montana are as much of a part of emergency medicine as ambulances in urban settings. Although the Air Force proposed to give priority to medical flights via direct Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) contact, there are some areas of the airspace where real-time contact with FAA air traffic control is not possible. We cannot support a proposal that could cause any disruption to emergency medical flights. 

Finally, we are concerned that the proposed expansion would bring the Little Big Horn National Battlefield under the PRTC.  There are more than 1,500 preserved artifacts at this important historic location.  Additional traffic would increase the danger of damaging these important pieces of American history.

We understand the need to improve pilot training for B-1 and B-52 pilots in the northern tier and we agree that opportunities for more realistic training around the country are increasingly limited.  We would encourage you to look for new ways to utilize the outstanding resources the Air Force currently enjoys in Montana. For example, the Hays Military Operations Area (MOA) is 700,000 acres larger than the current Powder River airspace.  The Hays MOA, combined with the F-15 fighters at the Montana Air National Guard Station in Great Falls, Montana, would provide an excellent resource for realistic air-to-air training scenarios. Unfortunately, the Air Force has announced that it intends to relocate these aircraft to Fresno, California and has made no plans to fully utilize the training value of the Hays MOA.

The Draft EIS describes the impacted area in Montana as “primarily rural and uninhabited in character.” Notwithstanding the small population of Southeast Montana, we have heard opposition from Montanans loud and clear. As you know, hundreds of our constituents expressed similar concerns during the recently-concluded public comment period.  We hope to work with you to resolve these concerns and to ensure that the Air Force and Montana continue to enjoy a successful partnership on this and other issues before this proposal advances.