Idahoans Balk at Air Force Proposal for Bomb Practice over Canyonlands

Article excerpt

THE sight of falcons and eagles soaring over the spectacularly beautiful canyonlands of southwestern Idaho should not be controversial. But when those "birds" are F-16 Falcons and F-15 Strike Eagles - top-of-the-line warplanes - political feathers are sure to fly.

The United States Air Force wants to set up two new practice bombing ranges south of Mountain Home Air Force Base. Combat pilots have been training in the area for years, but this would involve more supersonic flights, more air-to-ground simulated attacks, and a network of 32 electronic "threat emitters" to make the aerial combat as real as possible.

While the proposed new target ranges encompass just 25,321 acres, the actual operating area in which the fighters and bombers will dogfight and streak around at low level is some 3 million acres - about the size of Connecticut.

One of these bombing ranges is just seconds (by jet) from the Duck Valley Shoshone-Paiute Indian Reservation. And between the two ranges flows the Owyhee River, whose canyons have been compared to the Grand Canyon and are home to bighorn sheep and other wild animals.

At recent public hearings in Idaho, environmentalists and native American leaders spoke out strongly against the Air Force project.

Within the training range are sacred sites, including graves, said tribal leader Lindsey Manning. "It's also a place where we get our spiritual connection to the Creator," he said.

The Owyhee River flows north from Nevada, cutting through the reservation and across the southwest corner of Idaho before it enters Oregon where it flows north into the Snake River. Its canyons are a particular favorite of hikers and river runners.

At a hearing in Twin Falls, one river guide called it "the Sistine Chapel of all canyonlands."

Environmentalists also say the bombing ranges would impact several endangered species, 15 wilderness-study areas, and rivers that could be federally listed as "wild and scenic."

They are particularly concerned about the impact of jet noise, damage from the metal "chaff" pilots use to counter simulated enemy radar, and the potential of fires from flares dropped by aircraft flying overhead.

Air Force officials say they've been cautious about protecting areas of archeological or environmental significance in their plans, which have been cut back several times since they were first proposed.

Only practice bombs without explosives (not live ordnance) will be used, and pilots are not to break the sound barrier below 10,000 feet.

In addition, the Air Force says the proposed training areas are particularly important in the post-cold-war era when the military must be able to respond rapidly to potential threats anywhere in the world. …