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How the Military is Raiding Public Lands and Civilian Spaces Across the Western Front

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Upper West Little Owyhee Wild and Scenic River, Oregon.

Military public land grabs and intrusions into civilian spaces are raging in the West. Wild landscapes are targeted for huge seizures of public land, increases in hideously loud war plane overflight impacts, or development of facilities like threat emitters. The military already has seized vast areas of the American West for use as ground and air ranges. The Nellis Range in Nevada spans 2.9 million acres, but the Air Force now wants to seize 300,000 more acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. The Navy finalized a gigantic Fallon Range expansion EIS to lock up over 600,000 more acres of public lands east of Reno. Mountain Home Air Force base’s Owyhee Range airspace covers portions of three states (Idaho, Oregon, Nevada). Now the Air Force is proposing even more intrusive overflights. Washington’s wild coastal lands and waters, and people’s homes on Whidbey Island, are suffering nearly 100,000 Navy Growler flights a year. Navy intrusions on Olympic National Park and other sensitive sites include an area of the Hoh rainforest that had been described as the quietest place in the contiguous US. Meanwhile, civilian spaces in our cities and neighborhoods are increasingly subjected to creeping militarism and war games.

Military bite by military bite, the West is being consumed. Existing ranges are connected by Military Training Route air highways along which the planes travel over wild landscapes in between.

Urban War Games: Unprecedented Military Intrusion into Civilian Space

I now reside within an Urban War Range, though the Air Force doesn’t officially call it that. Boise and eight other cities across southern Idaho have become military playgrounds, along with land within a 30-mile diameter circle of town center. When I step into my yard, walk in the foothills or go downtown into “urban canyons” (as the Air Force dubs streets with taller buildings), I may become a conscripted game piece, part of the human “chaos” that the Air Force uses to train for bombings and assassinations across the globe. Mountain Home Air Force Base finalized an EA authorizing US and Singapore F-15 war planes to circle for hours above town at 10,000-18,000 ft. Meanwhile military personnel, Joint Terminal Attack Controllers or JTAC, playing friend and foe are disguised as civilians lurking on the ground. The war planes use “eye safe” lasers to zap the enemy amid the civilian clutter. Fortunately, this “Urban Close Air Support” proposal is being challenged in federal court. The litigation describes:

Once the military jets are in their holding patterns, a convoy of up to five vehicles and twenty soldiers will enter the urban center and act as the “Opposing Forces,” while a convoy of up to five vehicles and twenty soldiers would act as the “Friendly Forces.” These convoys will be comprised of both American and Singaporean forces and they will drive unmarked cars, travel through public spaces, and be disguised as plainclothes civilians. To begin a mission scenario, the Friendly Forces will communicate by radio with the F-15 jets above for help locating the Opposing Forces, which the aircraft will then track and target with training lasers.

There’s been no court ruling yet.

F-35s at City Airport Runways

Boise was an easy target for unprecedented urban war military civilian space grab, where real people are incorporated as play pieces. Under previous Mayor Dave Bieter, we were a wide-open frontier for any rapacious development or military scheme. The city used public funds to pay consultants to lobby for F-35 basing here and engaged in shenanigans for years to try to replace the A-10s based at the National Guard Gowen Field by the Boise airport with F-35s. The Guard uses the same airport runaways as passenger jets. F-35s are 8 to 16 times louder than the A-10s. Bieter resoundingly lost his re-election bid. New mayor Lauren Mclean trounced Bieter. Her opposition to the F-35s and concerns for affordable housing were major campaign issues.

The Air Force is also intent on inflicting F-35s on National Guard air units using urban airport runways. In 2013, Burlington Vermont was selected for F-35 siting over the fierce opposition of many residents, which continues to this day. Boise was in the running back, but fortunately lost out. As politicians heaped more billions on the F-35 program, another Guard unit basing scheme arose. The Air Force dispatched a review team to reconnoiter 5 cities, including Boise, and select two. They chose Montgomery, Alabama and Madison, Wisconsin as top candidates. The Guard uses the Madison city airport. Boise failed to make the cut. But that didn’t save us from being included in the latest F-35 EIS NEPA analysis. F-35s here would inflict horrific noise on the civilian populace. They would also overfly the Owyhee Canyonlands down to levels as low as 100-500 ft. in Idaho and use the military withdrawn bombing range sites. The final F-35 EIS is due out any day. Folks in Madison are rightfully alarmed at being part of the “preferred alternative” in the draft EIS. It’s a race to the bottom! Which city gets to not have its civilian population be human shields surrounding an F-35 base — with F-35s now designed to carry nuclear weapons? Which city gets to not have affordable houses demolished as homes near the airport become unlivable?

Even if Boise is not selected, as more bottomless billions are appropriated for F-35s, this EIS could serve as a basis for bringing them here with minimal new analysis. For much of the past decade, neighborhoods near the airport have been battling F-35 proposals. The stress and uncertainty of what will happen to homes has taken a real toll on people – along with the existing levels of airplane noise. The already considerable noise includes commercial airliners, A-10s, and transient war planes like Navy Growlers from Whidbey. Privately owned terminal facilities profit from transient war planes refueling at the airport. A few years ago, the Idaho Guard webpage read like a tourist brochure trying to lure transient war planes.

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Owyhee Supersonic War Games

The Air Force has a new torment for Idaho and the tri-state Owyhee Canyonlands. A low level supersonic flight proposal has been unleashed on the public, with the military justifying its move in part by claiming “getting high, getting fast allows us to throw our weapons and hit the enemy from much farther away”.

The Air Force seeks to lower flight levels for sonic booms (currently 10,000 ft.); drop down the current 3000 ft. war plane flight floors in Oregon and Nevada by an unknown amount; and use “terrain masking” flight. Scoping info was vague. It appears the Air Force plans to extend its sagebrush skimming Idaho levels into Malheur County and northern Nevada. There are few high points or mountains across much of the high desert plateau country to use for terrain masking flight, so this seems to mean only one thing no matter how much the Air Force may deny it – flights descending into canyons with horrific noise boomeranging around canyon walls and California bighorn sheep and raptor habitat.

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It’s hard to fly much lower than the appalling 100 ft. above ground level already allowed in Idaho MOA airspace, including above the Owyhee Initiative wilderness areas of Pole Creek, Little Jacks Creek, Big Jacks Creek, Bruneau-Jarbidge Rivers and Owyhee River. Regrettably, the Owyhee wilderness legislation contained military overflight language allowing virtually anything to take place in the wilderness airspace.

Sonic booms associated with supersonic flight generate enormous amounts of energy. They can be heard over vast distances. The thunderous sound, often accompanied with an unknown object suddenly appearing in the visual field, produces a startle effect, a primal avoidance reaction – like when you’re about to step on a snake. You don’t think, you react. Your mind has not had time to process the intense sound or that what’s coming at you is a plane, and not a giant velociraptor about to snatch you up for dinner. I’ve dropped to my knees, heart pounding, avoiding the unknown monster hurtling at warp speed in the Canyonlands. Now the Air Force wants to boom at even lower elevations while sneaking around using terrain masking flight.

An ever-increasing number of scientific studies show harmful noise impacts to myriad species of wildlife including sage-grouse. Military impacts on bighorn sheep were a huge issue with past Owyhee bombing range proposals. The Idaho Game Department has become so politically constrained and useless at sticking up for wildlife that its regional biologist told Times-News reporter Colin Tiernan:

“… there isn’t much good data on how bighorn sheep respond to loud noises. There have only been a few studies, mostly back in the 1980s and 1990s, and Curtis said most of those had holes in their research. Studying the impacts on the Owyhee populations would be incredibly difficult”.

Contrast this with the Washington state AG’s Growler lawsuit wildlife claims below.

Tufted Puffin with fish

Growler Land

Washington residents and groups like the Sound Defense Alliance have been fighting the Navy’s Growler expansion noise that is driving people out of their homes on Whidbey island. They are working to highlight impacts of military activity around the Salish Sea, Puget Sound and Olympic Peninsula. Growlers are not quite as loud as F-35s but they generate extremely annoying low frequency sounds that penetrate deep into the body. A friend equated the sound of a Growler here in Boise to a train rumbling on top of her head. We’ve confirmed that some of the particularly noxious war plane overflights in Boise are from Growlers using the city airport.

Whidbey residents have filed a lawsuit over the Navy’s authorization of a nearly 400% increase in flight field landing activity. Residents assert that the Growler EIS constitutes a taking without compensation of property rights, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.  There are 24 named Plaintiffs who seek to certify it as a class action. The lawsuit includes:

The high and unhealthful levels of noise and vibrations associated with the Navy’s new flight operations, coupled with the danger of living in and near areas that the Navy itself has identified as unsuitable for residential use in light of the danger of a deadly jet crash, has deprived Plaintiffs of the use and enjoyment of their property …

Here’s a montage of the plaintiffs suffering under the “sound of freedom”:

… war planes flying as low as 200 feet directly over her home on a 60 to 90 second cycle … trying to hold conversations while outside (or even inside) is unbearable when the planes are passing …the Bortons no longer enjoy where they live and talk about how all they want is to “escape.” Of course, the jets have made escape impossible as well since the Bortons are seniors on a fixed income and are now unable to sell their home since the jet traffic has destroyed their property value … Everyone at the home must put in ear plugs and then [w]ear silence head gear over the ear plugs. Still, everyone is losing sleep due to the loud sound of the jets and intrusion … Ms. Corliss also fears for her safety and notes that her daughter, who was previously diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, found instant relief when she briefly moved off of the Island … the start of the Growler plan resulting in frequent overflights has increased his PTSD symptoms, triggered nightmares, and has interfered with the use of his CPAP machine at night, which is required to help Mr. Firnstahl breathe … she cannot walk her dogs, garden, or even be outside when the Growlers are circling overhead. She is concerned about the health of her dogs who cower when the planes fly and are constantly stressed and shaking. She does not believe that she would even be able to sell her home and move … Ms. Nichols reports that when the jets are flying, she must go inside or else her organs vibrate in her chest cavity … Ms. Shaw’s dog Sassy was once so scared by the Growler overflights that she got her foot caught in a rockpile trying to flee the noise and broke her leg. It cost Ms. Shaw $2,500 to get Sassy surgery …”.

Separately, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the Navy to try to roll back the drastic increase in Growler flights over the land, coastline and ocean, citing effects on residents and wildlife, including endangered species.

The Navy authorized … increasing Growler take-offs and landings to nearly 100,000 per year for the next 30 years. Growlers are aircraft that fly low in order to jam enemy communications. The aircraft’s training regimen involves frequent, loud take-offs and landings…. In 2017, the Washington Department of Health provided feedback to the Navy on noise levels around the Whidbey Island airfields. The feedback outlined how exposure to noise levels similar to those at the naval air station could cause negative health impacts, including sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment and cardiovascular disease … The Navy arbitrarily dismissed impacts to human health and child learning from increased noise, despite many studies indicating that exposure to noise can lead to adverse health outcomes.

The suit stressed physiological noise effects, the Navy’s irrational claims that wildlife would “habituate”, and NHPA violations. It challenged the rejection of the Health Department concerns in the Growler EIS. The Navy evaded analysis by claiming there was not a definitive causal relationship between war plane noise and health effects. It seems that since nobody has yet dropped stone cold dead at the exact moment a Growler has flown over, there’s no need to worry.

“As the Washington Department of Health noted … requiring a definitive causal relationship between aircraft noise and health impacts is an unreasonably high standard that results in nonauditory health effects being excluded from analysis. By relying on this unreasonable standard, the Navy arbitrarily dismisses evidence of nonauditory health impacts caused by noise exposure and ignored or undervalued a growing body of science indicating key health concerns from noise impacts, including impacts from aircraft noise”.

The AG’s complaint references 230 migratory bird and priority species impacted including common murre, marbled murrelet, tufted puffin, great blue heron, harlequin duck, peregrine falcon and bald and golden eagles. The tufted puffin is a state endangered species. The Growler expansion intrudes on essential federally listed threatened marbled murrelet habitat, plus habitat for harbor seals, endangered southern resident killer whales (orcas), Steller sea lions, and many shorebirds – red knots, solitary sandpipers, and black oystercatchers, all of which are species of conservation concern.

As this article describes:

“The literature has shown that noise fundamentally changes behavior, distributions and reproductive success [for wildlife],” said Jesse Barber, who runs the Sensory Ecology Lab at Boise State University. “We can now clearly say that noise is a pollutant, but that takes some time to work its way into policy.”

There’s been no court ruling yet, but the Navy quickly agreed to re-initiate ESA consultation over Growler impacts on murrelets. The orca population is threatened by overflights of coastal areas of the San Juan Islands, Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands, with war plane noise levels up to 120 decibels and sound effects amplified in ocean water, along with potential pollution from fuel dumping and firefighting foam getting into water. The increased Navy flights will release 60,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, adding to ocean acidification that harms orca food supplies.

The overflights threaten the Hoh Rainforest One Square Inch of Silence site established by ecologist Gordon Hempton in 2005 to protect and monitor Olympic National Park’s soundscape, and marked by a tiny rock. Hempton relates: “Prior to the Navy arriving, it was not only the least noise-polluted national park in the U.S., it was also the most noise-diverse”.

Just last week I received an e-mail alert about the latest Growler outrage. Now the Navy wants to use Washington state land parks for their noxious War Games.

Juvenile bighorn

Juvenile bighorn sheep. Photo: USFWS.

Nellis Efforts to Devour Desert National Wildlife Refuge Public Lands

Nevada was the notorious site of 1960s era above-ground nuclear testing that extended a cancerous rain of radioactivity across the region. This included Idaho, where to this very day fallout victims have still not received compensation.

The Nellis Range includes the nuclear testing site (the NTTR), and sprawls across 2.9 million acres. An immense amount of military airspace extends over much of the state – associated with not just Nellis but also other war ranges – Fallon, the Utah Test and Training Range, Hawthorne, Mountain Home. But the war machine always claims it needs more, more, more for bigger, nastier, outrageously expensive weaponry training. Justification for the Nellis Land Grab includes wanting to “better simulate modern combat wherein planes drop bombs from greater distances and elevations …”.

Against fierce public opposition from all quarters, the Air Force finalized an EIS to seize 300,000 acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge (the largest refuge in the contiguous states). and hand over primary management jurisdiction for another 800,000 Refuge acres to the Air Force.

The Nevada Independent described:

“The Air Force already uses about 800,000 acres in the refuge, though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has primary jurisdiction over managing the land for conservation. Several groups were concerned the military’s proposal would give the Air Force primary control, allowing it to make decisions about 1.1 million acres within the refuge.

Reacting to the overwhelming public opposition to the military Land Grab, the Nevada Legislature passed a resolution opposing the expansion. Presidential contenders weighed in – Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker. A righteous storm was brewing.

Then Senator Catherine Cortez Masto introduced compromise legislation to reduce the military’s Refuge new land seizure area to 98,000 acres (153 sq. miles). Her bill also would transfer several thousand acres of other public land to the military, still allow 15 threat emitter sites, and would designate 1.3 million acres of wilderness in the Refuge.

Cortez Masto’s bill contains the awful Owyhee Initiative Wilderness military overflight language – where military overflight impacts could get even worse over the proposed wilderness areas of the higher mountainous areas of the Sheep Range, Las Vegas Range, Gass Peak, Papoose, South Spotted Range, Pintwater/East Desert/Spotted Range and Hole-in-the-Rock. Noise is already tremendous at times, since the war planes extensively use the lands below the 4000 ft. WSA belt. The EIS described the Air Force desires to tear open WSAs using roads and build new threat emitter sites, and expand the area of military withdrawn lands:

Almost 90 percent of the DNWR (about 1.4 million acres) has been proposed as wilderness by the USFWS since 1971, and about 590,000 of those acres are in the South Range. Generally, areas proposed for wilderness areas in the South Range correspond to elevations above 4,000 feet above mean sea level. The areas proposed for wilderness on the South Range are managed as de facto wilderness by virtue of USFWS land management policy, which results in significant restriction on Air Force activities to areas below 4,000 feet. Existing roads (mountain roads/passages) other than those used below 4,000 feet are off limits, as is troop movement, ground disturbance, and the development of new locations such as emitter sites and communication sites

The Air Force already gets to train in “full battle spectrum mode” and conduct its “intelligence surveillance reconnaissance” and “irregular warfare” across vast areas of Nellis and other ranges. They just pretty much want it all. It’s unclear to me how the Cortez Masto bill addresses the significant overall increase in military disturbance from the EIS – a 30 percent proposed increase in aircraft operations and munitions expansion, or where new threat emitters (produce electromagnetic radiation used in war games) would be located (inside or outside WSAs/wilderness?).

The Desert Wildlife Refuge was created in 1936 to perpetuate survival of desert bighorn sheep, well before the Air Force started incrementally seizing blocks of the Refuge and other public land in withdrawals and other maneuvers.

 

Fallon’s Immense BLM Land Grab – Lest Smart Bombs Go Dumb

Not far to the north, the Navy’s “Fallon Range Training Complex Modernization” scheme would drastically expand that war range by over 3 times its current size of 240,000 acres. According to Basin and Range Watch:

The US Navy wants to close and bomb over 769,724 acres of public lands in Churchill, Lyon, Mineral, Nye, and Pershing Counties, Nevada. If Congress agrees to this, there will never be public access again. Several public roads would be closed and several private properties would also just be taken by the government. Beautiful mountains and basins would be closed and anyone caught there would be arrested”.

Fallon would gobble up part of the Monte Cristo Range, the Gabbs Valley, areas of the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge and Stillwater Mountains. This includes parts of three BLM WSAs (Clan Alpine, Job Peak, Stillwater). The Navy even wants to defile mountain tops in the Stillwater Range sacred to the Fallon Paiute Shoshone tribe, placing electronic war game equipment on mountain peaks and locking up vast areas. In an Op Ed Tribal Chairman Len George decries the Navy’s aggressive Land Grab:

“ … we strongly oppose the Navy’s proposal to quadruple the size of Naval Air Station Fallon. The Navy’s proposed expansion would close off all public access to 660,000 additional acres of ancestral tribal lands and wilderness areas, turning these sacred public lands into a bombing range. The Navy also seeks to regulate an additional 300,000+ acres, for a total of nearly 1.2 million acres impacted by the base – not including the airspace that will be invaded”.

“… The proposed expansion of Naval Air Station Fallon would destroy our way of life because it would allow the Navy to bomb our burials and other important cultural sites, and deny us access to those areas. Congress would never allow Arlington National Cemetery to be bombed for training exercises or ban the public from going there to pay their respects – our sites deserve the same protection. The proposed expansion of Naval Air Station Fallon is dangerous and disrespectful”.

The claimed Navy “need” to seize public land is that a huge area must be closed to the public for the latest in killing technology, “in case a smart bomb goes dumb”.

In both the Nellis and Fallon analyses, the military rejects use of training simulators – despite the increasing automation of all aspects of death-dealing warfare – including steps to replace pilots with automated systems. Like with Nellis, the Nevada legislature passed a resolution transmitting their opposition to the Fallon Land Grab to Congress, which must vote to release WSA lands.

What I’ve written about is only what I’ve been tracking and have some (though perhaps not perfect) understanding of. It’s certainly not inclusive of the complex military expansion efforts underway. The battles to protect public lands and homes are being fought by citizens and environmental groups in individual locales. But the problem is nation-wide, as an out of control war machine progressively is consuming us all.

Note: The Air Force has now issued the Final F-35 EIS and the top basing choices remain Montgomery and Madison. A Decision Record has not yet been issued. 

***

The not so pure driven snow. Military chaff on new-fallen snow atop Juniper Mountain in the Owyhees. An enormity of environmental concerns surrounds the incessant war training taking place over public lands – chaff, flares that cause wildfires, fossil fuel use climate footprint, use of hazardous devices, many kinds of pollution.

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Katie Fite is a biologist and Public Lands Director with WildLands Defense.

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