Commentary By KAY MATTHEWS
The militarization of New Mexico runs long and deep: air force bases, nuclear weapons labs, waste disposal sites, and industrial arms corporations (and the Albuquerque Police Department) occupy sites across the state from urban neighborhoods to the badlands of Eunice. Now, it seems, we’re on the path to ceding our forests as well. (Los Alamos National Laboratory on the Pajarito Plateau set the precedent.)
This past Thursday, May 22, Cibola National Forest and Kirtland Air Force Base sponsored a tour of helicopter training operations on the Magdalena Ranger District. Yes, the USFS and the military are using our national forests as war training sites. We thought that the agency might see helicopters and fixed winged airplanes as incompatible with recreation, its main mission these days. Apparently not.
The Air Force has used the Cibola Ranger Districts—Sandia, Mountainair, Magdalena and Mount Taylor—for “specialized military training” since 1977 under temporary special use permits. Cibola National Forest has the unfortunate status of being close enough to meet Kirtland’s training criteria that costs not be raised above current funding levels and of having conditions similar to those “world wide” where the trainees may find themselves fighting wars. The military asked for a renewal and an increase in size, prompting the USFS to issue an environmental assessment for a permanent special use permit. The latest temporary permit expires this July. In its January 26, 2010 scoping letter the Cibola Forest Supervisor stated: “The Cibola NF provides ideal conditions for helicopter and fixed-wing training, tactical ground operations, and parachute training because of the diverse terrain and landscape found in the forest.”
The military exercises are conducted by the 377th Air Base Wing, the host unit at Kirtland. The “tenant” units within this wing will be conducting pararescuemen/combat rescue officer training; mission ready aircrews in special operations, personnel recovery, missile site report, and “Distinguished Visitor Airlift” (whatever that is); and “reconnaissance, surveillance, offensive operations, and battlespace shaping training to support specialized mission requirements of the Ground Combat Element or Marine Air-Ground Task Force” (just writing this down is mind numbing).
The “Draft Environmental Assessment Military Training Exercises with the Cibola National Forest Near Kirtland Air Force Base” was released in July 2013. During several 30-day public comment periods various individuals and groups complained that there was not enough time to wade through the copious National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)-related material. A Magdalena rancher, Arian Pregenzer, wrote an August 22, 2013 editorial in the Albuquerque Journal laying out objections: noise pollution from the aircraft; the shock of forest visitors encountering ground-based training such as pyrotechnics and combat simulations; violation of the USFS mission to “to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations”; and impacts to soils, vegetation, and wildlife by heavy equipment and large groups of military personnel. She references the amount of the increase in activity near Magdalena: “The proposal includes construction of three new helicopter landing zones, where the Air Force will conduct 4,378 flights each year and perform 26,230 maneuvers. It will also increase the number and size of field training exercises in that area.”
Conservation groups New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club, Backcountry Horsemen of New Mexico, The Wilderness Society, and New Mexico Sportsmen also wrote objection letters and asked, along with Pregenzer, why Kirtland couldn’t conduct these operations on the vast amount of land the military already owns in New Mexico. Michael Mideke and Ruth Hamilton made the following video about the activity in the Bear Mountains near Magdalena:
The understory in this proposal, as I previously referenced, is the apparent contradiction of increased military activity by an agency whose only management capacity is recreation, particularly on a forest like the Cibola, whose districts are so close to major New Mexico urban areas. Granted, the Magdalena district doesn’t see the same kind of pressure that Sandia District does, but still, it is heavily used by local hikers, hunters, and ranchers.
After the USFS inherited the colonized Spanish and Mexican land grants it turned them over to corporate loggers and for many years the agency’s raison d’etre was to harvest timber and was funded accordingly by Congress. These moneys paid for every other management activity, which usually got short shrift. After the timber industry left the state and the environmentalists succeeded in cutting off resources to communities through years of litigation, the USFS budget was severely restricted—that’s why you see so many contractors charging fees at various recreation sites around the forest—so that the agency, as editor David Correia says in the La Jicarita Manifesto, “exists today in name only. The next time you’re in a Forest Service office to get a permit for firewood wood or for a Christmas tree, take a look around. It’s only receptionists telling tourists where to recreate.”
As I was writing this I wondered if the military was providing financial support for its maneuvers on the forest so I e-mailed the Cibola public affairs officer to see if this were the case, but I haven’t heard back.
It’s not only the Cibola NF that is being affected by our rampant militarization. In her editorial Pregenzer also referenced Cannon Air Force Base’s proposal to establish a Low Altitude Tactical Navigation Area over a large area of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado where it will conduct hundreds of low-level training operations annually over wilderness areas in both states.
The Army also plans to increase its military maneuvers in Piñon Canyon, a short grass prairie, near Fort Carson in southern Colorado. The Piñon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition is preparing to tackle changes to an environmental impact statement being prepared by the Army.
The following editorial, by the Albuquerque Journal editorial staff, ran in Sunday’s paper: “So New Mexico can take comfort and pride in the work being done here to modernize one of the oldest and most versatile nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal – the B61 bomb. Sandia National Laboratories, working with Los Alamos National Laboratory and the U.S. Air Force, expects a refurbished model to be ready for production by 2020. The overall project will consolidate four different B61 models into a single, more versatile weapon called the B61-12.”
As La Jicarita contributor Stephanie Hiller wrote in her January 2014 article “Arms Around the Bomb: Why is New Mexico Still Wedded to Nuclear Weapons”: “Modernization of existing weapons — to keep them ‘safe, secure and accurate,’ as defense policy repeatedly states (begging the question of whether any nuclear weapon can be considered ‘safe’) — is a way to improve them without creating new ones, thus bypassing the strictures of the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty]. Recent modernization programs, however, have prompted critics to cry foul, arguing that modernization is simply being used as a cover-up for what amounts to a new weapon.” The Journal doesn’t cry foul—or even question—more militarization, including the APD’s.
The USFS is currently reviewing comments and revising the draft before releasing the Final EA. That document is, of course, subject to appeal.