F-16 expansion plans need resident input

November 13, 2017 GMT

Residents of southwestern New Mexico are finding out that big changes to their quality of life are being planned by the United States Air Force. Thousands of new training flights by supersonic F-16 fighter jets may soon be on the way over Silver City and other populated parts of Grant and Catron counties, and also the pristine Gila and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness areas, if Holloman Air Force Base has its way. But residents have had no say in the decision, nor did they even receive any prior notice of these far-reaching changes, even though federal law requires it.

NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, declares that it is the country’s national policy to “encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment.” It establishes a comprehensive method to assess potential risks, and promote informed decision-making, by the federal government when its actions may cause harm. The National Environmental Policy Act requires that detailed information of its potential actions is communicated in advance to local government agency leaders and the general public, and that they are afforded the opportunity to give input.

An initial “scoping” meeting for the public was needed, but did not happen in southwest New Mexico. Now residents are being presented with a done deal.

Like many residents, I am concerned about the health and the crash risks of an extremely beefed up F-16 training mission over our local skies, and the cognitive impairment of area children from sonic booms and frequent loud jet noise. It would be ear-splitting and bone-rattling. Also, there is possible financial hardship for thousands of people in southwest New Mexico, including the lowering of home values.

There are many potential hazards and many unanswered questions about the Air Force’s new plans for Grant and Catron counties. What are the noise levels? What are the down draft issues? For every 100 training exercises, how many jets will experience fuel spillage or leaking? We need more information about all of that.

Sometimes F-16 fighter jets ditch their fuel tanks when they get into trouble, weighing 160 kilos between them. What would happen if one of them were to come down on a residential area? We have to think of these issues.

The economy of Silver City and the surrounding areas is heavily dependent on people visiting the Gila from all over the world. Our state’s largest wilderness area attracts visitors who want to experience its quiet places, see its archaeological sites, float its rivers, see its wolves, fish its streams, and hunt its elk, deer and turkey.

New Mexicans are just as devoted to enjoying the forest for hunting, fishing, camping, horseback riding and hiking. All of these activities require a quiet forest and would be disastrously impacted by low-elevation military flights and the dropping of thousands of flares and chaff, which can seriously disrupt wildlife in addition to the activities of humans. There will be pervasive risk of forest fires.

All of us in southwestern New Mexico love our country, and support our military and a strong national defense. But the introduction of thousands of thundering jet flights year-round over our region will harshly affect our lives and livelihoods. Is there no alternative airspace for the training mission?

Our communities need a full environmental-impact review of the proposed F-16 training plan. In its decision to locate potential new airspace for its expansion, the Air Force skipped the key “scoping” part of the National Environmental Policy Act process, at least for Silver City and southwestern New Mexico. Residents’ substantial concerns have not been heard. This is unacceptable.

Sen. Howie Morales, a Democrat, is a state senator from Silver City.