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Tipton Aide: Air Force Backs Off Plains Training

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US Air Force T-38 Talon jet trainers fly in formation (credit: AP)

US Air Force T-38 Talon jet trainers fly in formation (credit: AP)

PUEBLO, Colo. (AP) – The Air Force is revising its plan for low-altitude training flights over Colorado to avoid the Eastern Plains, including the Army’s Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site northeast of Trinidad, according to Rep. Scott Tipton’s office.

Tipton, a Republican, was given that assurance in recent meetings with the Air Force, said Tipton chief of staff Mike Hesse.

“The Air Force told us they intend to move the proposed training range to over western Colorado, away from Pinon Canyon and southern Colorado,” Hesse said.

The Air Force stirred up opposition across the region and in New Mexico last year when it announced plans for low-altitude training flights of V-22 Ospreys and other special operations aircraft flying out of Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.

The missions were to fly as low as 200 feet in the proposed 94,000-square-mile training range that covered New Mexico and western Colorado and extended as far east as La Junta — an area that includes both Pinon Canyon and Fort Carson.

The announcement set off political fireworks among Colorado ranchers who have been fighting Army plans to expand the 238,000-acre Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site since 2005. Opponents immediately charged the Pentagon of opening a new front in the Pinon Canyon battle by adding Air Force demands for more training space in the region.

The Air Force is doing a required National Environmental Policy Act study of the proposed training range and will announce a revised plan in early September.

Asked whether those changes would include shifting the training range away from Pinon Canyon, an Air Force spokesman declined to discuss particulars until the plan is released.

“This will be a draft environmental assessment, but we hope it will put some of these community concerns to rest,” said Capt. Derek White, spokesman for the 27th Special Operations Wing, which flies out of Cannon.

The Air Force repeatedly has said that its low-altitude training plan is unrelated to any Army plans for Pinon Canyon.

“We’ve been assured that whatever environmental study the Air Force is doing cannot be used by the Army for its purposes at Pinon Canyon,” Hesse said.

Mack Louden, a Las Animas County commissioner who is a long-time opponent of Pinon Canyon, said he wasn’t reassured.

Louden has watched the fight over Pinon Canyon change over the past six years from the Army wanting a 1-million-acre increase in land to an announced acquisition plan of 418,000 acres in 2007, to finally being forced to shrink that plan to just 100,000 more acres.

The conflict currently is at an impasse.

Having lost legislative fights in Congress and in the General Assembly, the Army’s declared plans for Pinon Canyon as of 2011 are simply to increase training at the current site. No expansion is being contemplated for at least five years.

“So what’s the Air Force saying now?” Louden said with skepticism. “That it will only train over western Colorado? They should go train over Nevada. The federal government already owns all of that land.”

Jean Aguerre, president of the Not 1 More Acre! opposition group, said her research indicates the Pentagon wants to expand joint service training space across the region because of its growing reliance on unmanned and robotic weapons.

“We count on Congressman Tipton to honor his obligation to taxpayers in his district and across our nation to work tirelessly until policy preventing any military expansion in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico is realized,” she said in a statement.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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