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LATN comment deadline approaches

by Carol Dunn

    As luck would have it, the high-altitude mountainous terrain of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado are similar to that in Afghanistan.  And according to decision makers at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, this is an ideal area for aircrews of the 27th Special Operations Wing to hone unique skills with C-130 planes and CV-22 Ospreys in “below radar” maneuvers before they deploy to real-world combat conditions in Afghanistan.  The Osprey is a tilt rotor aircraft that combines the vertical takeoff, hover and vertical landing features of a helicopter with the long-range, fuel efficiency and speed of a turboprop plane.  Its mission is to conduct long-range infiltration, removal and resupply of special operations forces missions.  The C130 flies clandestine or low visibility, low-level missions into politically sensitive or hostile territory to provide air refueling for special operations aircraft.  The C130 primarily flies during darkness to avoid being seen or intercepted.

    As reported by the Pueblo Chieftain on October 20, 2010, the vice-commander of Cannon asserts the Air Force already has permission for training flights over the proposed 94,000-square-mile Low Altitude Tactical Navigation (LATN) region at altitudes of 500-3,000 feet.  The Air Force Base is now seeking to lower those flights to 200 feet above the ground.  Official estimates are that three training flights will be made per day, five days a week, starting after dusk and lasting up to five hours.  According to the Cannon AFB web site, www.cannon.af.mil. Air Force regulations require aircraft training in the LATN area to avoid towns, noise sensitive areas, airfields and wilderness areas.  They must fly at 250 knots or less and cannot fly over the same point more than once a day.

    Science Application International Corporation, a Cannon contractor based in McLean, Virginia, is developing an environmental assessment to determine whether the LATN project would significantly affect the environment.  The EA will take into consideration: noise, air quality, safety, plant and animal communities, cultural and historical resources, recreation, land use and socioeconomics.  If it is determined that these resources will be significantly affected, a more detailed environmental impact statement will be required.  Cannon officials have said that the comment period gives the public the opportunity to identify issues people feel should be studied for the EA and beyond.  The draft EA is expected to be available by Spring, 2011.  

    A scoping meeting to gauge public opinion about the LATN project is not planned for Huerfano County, but one was recently held in Alamosa.  The San Luis Valley Economic Council (www.slvec.com) has taken a leadership role in its community in opposing the LATN proposal.  It cites some of the reasons it cites are similar to concerns raised by local Huerfano concerned citizens: The community has residents who are active-duty military or veterans, some of whom suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and are sensitive to the sounds of combat, ie. low flying military aircraft at night.  The flights could harass wildlife.  The economy is dependent upon tourists who visit the area for its peace and quiet, which would be altered by low flying aircraft.  The dry terrain presents a risk of fire from sparks and potential crashes.  Perchlorate from jet fuel could contaminate waterways.  Chaff, a radar countermeasure composed of microfilaments of fiberglass and aluminum, could contaminate the landscape.

    Custer County has gone on record opposing the proposed LATN project.  Christine Canaly of SLVEC told the Huerfano World Journal that people are working on getting other municipalities to do the same.  “It′s an education process, we will continue to garner their support despite the deadline,” she said.  Citing noise, wildlife, livestock and tourism concerns, the La Veta Town Board passed a resolution on October 18 opposing the LATN proposal.  It did not pass unanimously, however, and there is a certain portion of the local population that is supportive of LATN.

    According to the Cannon AFB web site, if the proposed LATN is not established, aircrew training would occur in existing Military Training Routes (MTRs) and Kirtland LATNs.  It states that, if the training remains restricted to existing airspace units, aircrews would not develop the unique skills obtained by training in varied mountainous terrain. 

    Although SLVEC has proposed that the public comment deadline be extended again (it was originally a month long, ending October 4) until early next year, the deadline now stands at Monday, November 15.  Comments should be directed to:  Cannon Air Force Base Public Affairs Office, 110 E Sextant Ave, Suite 1150, Cannon AFB, NM 88103; phone (575)784-4131; Email: 27SOWpublicaffairs@cannon.af.mil.  At the Alamosa scoping meeting, the public was told that all emails and letters will be kept for the record.  A flyer distributed by Cannon AFB stated that public comments “will help shape the proposal and focus the environmental analysis.”