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BILLINGS, MONT. — The Air Force is moving forward with its 2008 proposal to expand a bomber training site, most of which is over southeastern Montana.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday notified the Montana Department of Transportation that it was taking public comment through April 3 on the proposed expansion of the Powder River Training Complex, said Debbie Alke, administrator of the Aeronautics Division.
The expanded training airspace would stretch about 300 miles between Billings and Bismarck, N.D., with air space also over northeastern Wyoming and South Dakota, The Billings Gazette reports.
The Air Force proposed the expansion, saying it needs a larger area to better train B-1 crews stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and B-52 crews stationed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to ensure their readiness to succeed and survive in combat. The proposal calls for flights up to 240 days a year, with large force exercises involving about 20 aircraft about 10 days per year.
Some ranchers and private pilots in Montana oppose the expansion.
On Tuesday, Montana Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh wrote to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III to state their opposition.
They argued the training center presented a safety risk, given that a B-1B bomber from Ellsworth crashed near Broadus in August. Range fires and damage to livestock are also a concern, the senators said. There are also 33 small airports in the flight area, sacred tribal lands and the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
Walsh, former adjutant general of the Montana National Guard, agrees with the need for training but said it would have too much of an effect on the ground.
“This cannot come at the expense of Montana’s lands, historic sites or creating an increased risk to public safety,” Walsh told the newspaper, arguing the expansion could lead to restricted commercial travel, disruption of livestock and safety risks.
Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota has been urging action on the proposed training area and last month met with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to ask him to expedite its approval.
If approved, the size of the Powder River Training Complex would quadruple, making it the largest terrestrial training space over the continental United States, Thune said.
Baker Municipal Airport Manager Roger Meggers said he’s worried how the training flights might affect the increased air traffic in eastern Montana and western North Dakota as a result of the oil and gas development in the Bakken.
Rancher Steve Rosencranz, who has lived for years in the existing training area, said the flights haven’t been all that disruptive. The Air Force has accommodated ranchers in the past by staying away during calving seasons and other times when bombers flying low overhead would be problematic, he said.
“I guess I’m not all that against it. I think they got to practice somewhere,” said Rosencranz, who is also a Carter County commissioner.