20-year agreement expands Air Force training sites in New Mexico’s Cibola National Forest
Members of the 71st Special Operations Squadron conduct a CV-22 Osprey training exercise near Albuquerque, New Mexico, May 27, 2021 (Ireland Summers / US Air Force)
ALBUQUERQUE, NM (Tribune News Service) – About 20 times a year, Air Force Master Sgt. Eric Denman will take off from Kirtland Air Force Base in a CV-22 Osprey and fly south to the Magdalena Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest.
As quickly as 20 minutes after takeoff, Denman and other aviators, often those who train under his direction, find what they are looking for: difficult flight conditions.
Landing zones in the region are located at altitudes between 5,500 and 6,500 feet above sea level, creating difficulties for pilots due to the scarcity of air. In summer, temperatures often rise above 100 degrees, further complicating flight dynamics. In addition, there is fine dust everywhere and it quickly envelops the craft and suffocates the engines, forcing pilots to rely on instruments rather than their eyes when attempting to land.
In winter, Air Force crews fly into the forest at night in freezing temperatures, and it’s so dark and isolated that their night vision equipment isn’t enough to navigate the terrain.
Denman compared flying in the Magdalena to flying in “places in the Middle East”.
“With every deployment I’ve been to, it’s not a shock to get there and have to operate in these areas because of the training we’ve received here,” he said. “Without having that (training area) there would be a learning curve when we get to these high altitude, high temperature environments.”
The public lands around Albuquerque will remain a proxy for the Middle East for years to come.
The Air Force and Cibola National Forest recently obtained a permit that allows the service to train on National Forest lands outside of Albuquerque for the next two decades.
The two federal agencies signed the permit after an approximately 10-year process, which included scoping – a formal process to consider how the training would affect the local community and the environment – and comment periods from the public. Letters of objection have been filed by nearby landowners and conservation organizations, and environmental assessments have been completed.
The permit will expire at midnight on December 31, 2041.
The permit applies to two groups at Kirtland Air Force Base: the 351st Special Warfare Training Squadron, which uses the land for mountain rescue training, land navigation and other tactics, and the 58th Special Operations Wing, which trains more than 1,000 airmen per month in several aircraft, including the CV-22, a unique-looking tilt-rotor aircraft that combines the ability of a helicopter to hover and land with the speed and fuel consumption of a turboprop aircraft.
The mission of the aircraft is the long-range infiltration and exfiltration of special operations forces, and much of this training takes place in the Magdalena Ranger district west of Socorro. The latest permit allows the 58th SOW to create three additional landing zones in the region, which will add to the difficulty of landing there as airmen will now have to overcome various obstacles, said Colonel Michael Curry, commander of the 58th SOW.
The 58th SOW also uses the National Forest for the C-130 drop zones. And the 4th Reconnaissance Battalion of the United States Marine Corps has traditionally trained in the National Forest.
On Thursday, the training wing made use of the landing zones created by the new permit for the first time. The permit gives the Air Force access to more than 70,000 acres of national forest land for training exercises. Different types of training can take place in four of Cibola’s ranger districts: Mount Taylor, Magdalena, Mountainair and Sandia.
Military training in the Cibola National Forest dates back to 1977, when the Forestry Service granted the Air Force its first Special Use Permit.
The public scoping period for the most recent permit began in January 2010, according to Forest Service documents.
A draft environmental assessment was released in 2013, which was followed by a period of public comments and public meetings.
There was opposition to military training, which is one of the reasons the licensing process took a decade.
Patricia Johnson, spokesperson for the Cibola National Forest, said in an email that the forest service had added extra time for public comment during the process.
The Forest Service received approximately 185 comments, which led to two objection resolution meetings. Those meetings were held in August and letters were sent to opponents, she said.
New Mexico Wild, Backcountry Horsemen of New Mexico, the Sierra Club, New Mexico Sportsmen and The Wilderness Society were among the groups that asked the Forest Service to consider alternatives to using forest land for military training. Their demands included limiting military training to military land, according to Journal records and clearance documents.
Logan Glasenapp, an attorney for staff at New Mexico Wild, said the organization feared military training had affected vegetation near landing zones, affected wildlife and increased traffic in the area.
“At the end of the day, we fear that our public lands are starting to look like war zones,” he said.
Several people living near the training sites also opposed the permit, including Arian Pregenzer, a retired physicist who worked at Sandia National Laboratories.
“We lost,” she said. “We have lost the battle.
In 1996, Pregenzer bought 160 acres near Magdalena and built an adobe house.
“It was basically a place to get away from it all and have some solitude,” she said.
But her house is within sight of the current helicopter landing zone in the Magdalena Ranger district. She said she will also be able to see two of the three new landing zones.
Day and night, when the CV-22s arrive to land, she said, the walls of her house are shaking and the windows are shaking.
“From top to bottom, top to bottom, top to bottom. Then they make a circle and come back, ”she said, describing the training exercises.
Pregenzer was one of the many residents of the Magdalena area who argued that training on forest land was unnecessary.
“I worked with the army. I have a lot of respect for them. But they need to be questioned. And they must be held accountable, ”she said. “Why can’t you train in Kirtland?” or White Sands? We have 5,000 square miles of military land in New Mexico, why can’t they do it there? “
Johnson said the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Defense have made agreements that allow such military training on national forest lands.
“National forests are managed for multiple uses,” Johnson said. “To maintain mission readiness, military personnel must train in a variety of conditions and landscapes. Desert, mountainous, and wooded terrain are all found within the Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands.
Curry said the training offered in nearby National Forest Lands is invaluable.
“This is the most difficult flight we have to do,” he said. “I want them to experience these difficulties here, so when challenged on the operational side, the flying part becomes less difficult.”
Denman said Air Force personnel who use the training areas understand this is a privilege. He said all instructors and students at the 58th SOW are required to read the requirements set out in the permit. And he says the Air Force is doing everything it can to dampen noise and other effects in the area during training exercises.
The license exploitation plan places many restrictions on training exercises. For example, all sessions are limited to 40 students and 15 instructors.
No pyrotechnics or blank ammunition may be used during periods of high or extreme fire danger. The army must clean up after its exercises every day.
There are also more specific restrictions. For example, the Air Force cannot fly within 1 mile horizontally or 1000 feet vertically of any known golden eagle nesting site from February to August. The Air Force is also not supposed to intentionally fly low over livestock, wildlife or dwellings, according to the operations plan.
“We have to be respectful. Using the LZs (landing zones) it’s a privilege for us to be out there and use this place, ”Denman said. “It’s not something we are entitled to. And that being the case, we have to deal with it. “
(c) 2021 Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, NM)
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