The Rocky Mountains burst out of the short grass prairies of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado with a special beauty that is part of the DNA of its residents and former residents. People from all over the world seek out these mountains. This is the “purple mountains’ majesty” of “America the Beautiful.”
The people who live in this area are deeply rooted and very protective of this wonderful place. The area teems with wildlife, breathtaking mountain peaks, wilderness areas, forests and natural wonders like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Shiprock and the Rio Grande Gorge.
Tribal lands in the area contain three United Nations-designated World Heritage Sites: Taos Pueblo, Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. Taos Pueblo has been continuously inhabited for more than 1,000 years. In addition to being a world treasure, it is also designated a National Historic Landmark. More than 20 sovereign nations live in this area today, rooted to their lands and sacred sites.
Later settlers came for grants of land “deeded” by the King of Spain. Next came the U.S. Cavalry to conquer the West, followed by pioneers of the United States, followed by a flow of immigrants from around the world to settle this vast continent, a flow that still continues.
These mountains contain the Continental Divide, with all the headwaters of the rivers that nourish the arid southwest flowing west all the way to the Gulf of California and east to the Gulf of Mexico.
Isn’t this land protected forever? Not according to the military and Congress.
The people in this area, joined by allies across the globe, are fighting every day to keep this wonderful place from being turned into a very low-altitude special operations flying and spying training area by the Air Force. If the military gets its way, this will be America’s own Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran of mountain villages used for war training.
Over one year ago, in September 2010, the Air Force announced that is was going to create a low-altitude training area, or LATA, over New Mexico and Colorado – very low, as in 300 feet above ground level. Most nights of the year, there would be an average of three flights zooming overhead at 250 miles per hour, with jumbo C-130 Hercules tankers full of fuel for refueling the crash-prone, obscenely expensive, Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
The Defense Department has tried to cancel the Osprey since 1989. The Governmental Accountability Office testified to Congress as recently as 2009 that the Osprey should be terminated. The cost of each Osprey has ballooned, and they cost more than $11,000 per hour to fly. Despite this, Congress continues to fund the defense contractors Boeing and Bell to build more.
The massive expanse of terrain desired by the Air Force for this special-operations practice may be the largest single takings ever subjected to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. If it is not the largest, it is one of the largest: 39 very large counties in two states; a vast area of some 60,000 square miles – 38.4 million acres – containing large swaths of the pristine southern Rocky Mountains and short grass prairie. This area is beloved, fiercely beloved, by those who live here and visit.
The vast majority of this area is protected – or is it? Unlike most of the rest of the United States, much of it is communally owned, by sovereign American Indian nations, Spanish and Mexican community land grants and the public. All citizens of the United States own the extensive federal public lands.
The Constitutions of both New Mexico and Colorado designate large amounts of state lands to be forever held in trust for the benefit of public schools and education in each state. There are nearly 20 million combined state acres, with the majority in New Mexico, a large part of which are included in the LATA. The military gives zero recognition of the importance of state trust lands nor any potential change or degradation in value or use that might occur under the proposed LATA. These degradations would cause serious impacts to education funding into the future for all the students in the two states.
Wasteful military spending is not only polluting, but its excess is making the U.S. less safe. I have spent the last year as part of the Peaceful Skies Coalition, www.peacefulskies.org. We are a coalition that has come together to stop the Air Force from implementing this disastrous low-altitude flight plan. The coalition has brought together an amazing cross-section of people: tribal leaders and local governments, ranchers and environmentalists, veterans and pacifists. People across the entire political spectrum are working together to save a place, a very special place.
After a career focused on public health and rural development, getting involved in military spending has been a real eye-opener for me. During the decades I spent in Washington, D.C., whether fighting for increased access to health care or community development funds to sustain the fragile economies of frontier and rural communities, I never really knew how extreme the transfer of wealth to defense contractors and the military had become. I hadn’t studied how endless militarization had literally sucked the life-blood out of rural America and replaced it with the myth that our only hope is to be resource-extraction colonies or military colonies of a globalized economy for the 1 percent.
While I focused on trying to salvage a health program or increase rural development funds through one farm bill after another, defense contractors had received trillions of dollars for war and the practice of war. Prize-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy speaks around the world about the dangers of global militarization, reminding us that there was a time “when weapons were manufactured in order to fight wars. Now wars are manufactured in order to sell weapons.”
That is how it feels on the ground under this latest proposed sky grab.
As the Peaceful Skies Coalition studied the Air Force proposal, we learned two things. First, the military already has too much airspace, more than half of the skies over the United States, and, second, the costs of this proposal and the other military sky and land grabs are a large factor in the bankrupting of the country.
We learned that communities throughout rural America are fighting to stop more Air Force flights overhead. In addition to New Mexico and Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, Kentucky and Maine are some of the other states fighting intrusive low-level flights.
Low-altitude flights cause many negative economic impacts to communities. They hurt tourism-dependent local economies, harm wildlife and range animals, pollute agricultural land and damage the lives of people under the flight paths.
Airplane owners and pilots are uniting to stop the proposed increase in low-altitude military flights. Many pilots have testified that current simulation programs are sophisticated enough to provide training for lower cost and with fewer environmental impacts. Pilots are already having a hard time flying in the West; at the LATA forums they testified how hard it already is to zig-zag around military airspace just to fly from one place to another.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was a very large, multi-issue rural coalition. One of its most important projects was the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability, or RAMA.
Anyone interested in building on that model can contact Media Peaceful Skies Coalition via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rural people can stand together for real sustainable community development and a better future for our communities and the nation as a whole.
Carol Miller is a longtime public health advocate and lobbyist, has run for Congress and is currently co-chair of the Peaceful Skies Coalition, which opposes the low-altitude flights.