LAS CRUCES, N.M. — The U.S. Air Force signaled that it would likely expand existing airspace to train F-16 fighter pilots rather than create new flying areas over the Rio Grande Valley and Gila wilderness.

In an environmental impact statement, the Air Force said it would prefer to extend current operations over Eddy, Otero and Chaves counties for F-16 pilots taking off from Holloman Air Force Base, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported Tuesday.

While F-16 training also occurs on airspace at the White Sands Missile Range and McGregor Range at Fort Bliss, the Air Force has said that more airspace is needed to adequately train pilots.

The Air Force has proposed three options since 2017. Other alternatives could have resulted in new operation areas just under 11,000 square miles (28,490 square kilometers) west of the White Sands Missile Range and over population centers in several counties, including Grant and Dona Ana.

During public hearings in 2019, environmental and economic organizations said the Air Force had not provided data that supported claims that overflights and noise would have minimal impact on wildlife. The local organizations also said that the Air Force did not properly address concerns about noise pollution and the risk of wildfires.

New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales said in a statement Monday that the preferred alternative is “a big win for southwest New Mexico communities and everyone who enjoys using our beautiful public lands and forests for hiking, hunting and fishing, camping, horseback riding and quiet solitude.”

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