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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — An Air Force plan to more than triple the area that can be used in training exercises for the Dakotas-based B-1 and B-52 bombers is still undergoing an environmental review nearly a year after the final report was expected.
Officials at Ellsworth Air Force Base are in the process of holding phone meetings with Native American tribes throughout the area to talk about sensitive cultural, historic and religious properties on tribal lands.
The six-year effort to expand the airspace is a complex process that involves working with the Federal Aviation Administration, the region's Native American tribes and the public through a detailed environmental review.
A draft environmental impact statement was released in August 2010, and public hearings were held in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana later that year to solicit public comments, said Maj. Matthew Reese, an Air Force spokesman based at Ellsworth.
The Air Force earlier had said a final environmental impact statement was expected to be released last winter.
"It's still being finalized," he said. "It's out of Ellsworth's hands, certainly."
Reese said the effort is a long, painstaking process involving a number of different agencies and governments, which has slowed progress.
In a letter to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe scheduling a meeting, Air Force Col. Mark Weatherington said the 28th Bomb Wing is proposing to develop an agreement that would legally bind the Air Force with commitments to avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse effects to historic properties.
"We're in the middle of that discussion and there's still a long way to go there, too," Reese said. "We're getting everybody together on open phone lines to talk things through."
The Powder River Training Complex, centered just northwest of where South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana meet, now spans about 8,300 square miles.
The space can accommodate only one or two bombers at a time, so some B-1B Lancers from South Dakota's Ellsworth Air Force Base and B-52 Stratofortress bombers from North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base have had to fly to Utah or Nevada for their combat exercises.
The Air Force has said expanded area would help pilots practice bomb runs, defensive maneuvers and evasive actions used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It wants to add three "military operation areas" to create a fly space of about 27,500 square miles — an area larger than the state of West Virginia. The complex would encompass a portion of southwestern North Dakota and new parts of northwestern South Dakota and southeastern Montana.
The draft plan has irked some civilian pilots concerned about the additional air traffic as well as some ranchers who worry that flyovers by low-flying, 146-foot-long aircraft will spook their livestock.
The original Powder River airspace will continue to be used the most, as the boundary contains ground-based emitters that simulate enemy radar and systems. Pilots can't drop bombs in the Powder River area, but they would be allowed to release magnesium flares and chaff, a countermeasure made of aluminum-covered silica fibers.