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Military's forest training in N.M. draws concerns

Nov. 4, 2013 - 06:09PM   |  
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Objections are being voiced to Kirtland Air Force Base’s request to renew a decades-old agreement that allows military training in mountainous and high-altitude parts of a national forest in central New Mexico.

Kirtland has had an agreement since 1977 to use parts of the Cibola National Forest for training. That training includes establishment of helicopter landing zones, high-altitude flights by aircraft and remote deployment of ground teams.

Some conservation groups and at least one private landowner call the military activity noisy and harmful to wildlife habitat, the Albuquerque Journal reported Monday.

“The noise from helicopters both day and night shakes the houses and disturbs wildlife and cattle,” Magdalena-area landowner Arian Pregenzer said in an Aug. 22 op-ed in the newspaper. “It completely destroys the peace in this wild and open area.”

Pregenzer and other critics suggest that the training be conducted on military installations such as Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range.

Military officials say that units already use those facilities and that the forestland provides more realistic training locations to simulate places where Air Force and Marine Corps units could deploy.

“Because we send people out to units that might not have this terrain there, we train for it here,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Christina Willard, 58th Special Operations Support Squadron commander. “Then, when they’re sent to do operational things overseas, they’ve already worked in that environment before.”

Portions of the forest’s Sandia, Mountainair and Magdalena ranger districts are ideal for high-altitude training, where the thin air affects the performance of aircraft, military officers said.

The proposed changes to the agreement include the Air Force’s request for three additional helicopter landing zones in the Magdalena district.

Other proposed changes would permit training by larger groups of Air Force combat search-and-rescue teams and additional classes for those groups.

A Marine Corps reconnaissance unit uses the forest for troops to practice moving furtively through mountainous terrain to relay information about enemy locations, topography, roads and infrastructure to commanders.

The troops are sometimes dropped by air into the area, where they set up small base camps. Under the proposal, the number of reconnaissance training exercises could increase from a maximum of two per year to three.

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