Ranchers fear negative effects of military training

Sep 24, 2010

Peace and tranquility are two of the elements of the prairie most valuable to Marvin Kammerer, a rancher in western South Dakota. They are also two of the elements he fears are most in danger of being eliminated if a proposal by the U.S. Air Force to expand a training complex is put into action.

The bombing practice range expansion, called the Powder River Training Complex, is in the public comment period. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement—a 496-page document—has been released for the public to review and meetings have been scheduled across western South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana to provide venues for the public to respond to the plan.

According to a frequently asked questions document put out by Ellsworth Air Force Base, the expansion is needed to give pilots more realistic training with today’s technology and techniques. The current bombing practice range would be more than quadrupled to 28,000 square miles. According to the document, today’s technology surpasses the technology that was in place when the current training range was set up. The new technology, which allows B-1 pilots the flexibility to perform a variety of tasks at a range of hundreds of miles, requires more space for the pilots to train so they are ready to use all the tools at their disposal in combat situations.

The training that will take place will involve bombers flying at altitudes as low as 500 feet, at speeds that will break the sound barrier, and using chaff and flares. These training components concern ranchers, airplane pilots, wind energy proponents and others who live in the area. Kammerer, whose ranch adjoins Ellsworth Air Force Base, is concerned about the effects of noise on the wildlife, quality of life and property values. The Air Force website states that missions that will break the sound barrier will happen about 10 days per year and at above 10,000 feet to minimize sound disturbances. Training missions in general, however, will take place daily for an estimated 240 days per year. The training complex will be broken up into sections, allowing the Air Force to use one section at a time for training, like crop rotation farming, said Col. Jeffrey Taliaferro, the commander at Ellsworth.

The chaff, which is dropped from the planes and used to confuse the radar, is composed of aluminum-coated glass fibers. Kammerer is concerned about the effects the chaff could have on his cattle and his family. According to the Air Force, animals will not eat the chaff unless it is mixed with molasses, and if they do eat it, there are no known negative health effects. Kammerer, however, questions its effect on the high quality grass for which South Dakota is known.

Kammerer also wonders about the effects of the noise on wildlife, particularly the sage grouse, which is a species of concern for many. "I’ve observed wildlife and creatures in the environment all my life and I’m 73 years old. I have to wonder what this is doing to the wildlife." Kammerer says he raised geese and ducks for years and would see about a dozen eggs hatch each spring. After the big planes came in, he says, the fowl would still lay as many eggs, and the eggs would be fertilized, but only one or two out of 12 would hatch. "I don’t have any proof that the noise is the reason, but I have to wonder," Kammerer says.

Another concern Kammerer voiced is the use of flares. The flares are designed to burn out in seconds, after falling a maximum of 500 feet, while still in the air, but Kammerer says there’s always a chance of one of them starting a fire. "I’ve seen videos of flares starting fires in the Idaho training complex. I’d hate to have to get up any time a plane flies over, day or night, and go check to see if they are using flares and if those are starting fires," Kammerer says. The Air Force states, "In the last 20 years of B-1 aviation in other ranges across the country, there have not been any cases of fires started by B-1 flares."

Another negative impact Kammerer sees is the effect on property values. He compares the noise created by the airplanes to that of living near railroad tracks. "If someone comes out here with money in his pocket to buy a ranch and a bomber flies by at 500 feet and Mach 1, he’s not going to buy here."

Kammerer’s biggest objection to the training complex, though, is that it’s unnecessary. "This is an invasion of part of the reason we live here. It’s up to us as stewards of the prairie to fight back against the invasion. The Air Force doesn’t need this. As citizens, it’s our responsibility to question what they are up to. It’s up to us to guide this nation. It’s not up to those who want promotion. We can’t let those who create an environment of fear get us to do things that we probably shouldn’t be doing."

The public meetings will continue through the end of October and the comment period ends Nov. 13, 2010.

In Kammerer’s view, it’s all or nothing for the proposal. "There’s no compromise. Give an inch and pretty quick, they take a mile. They already have a 10-mile wide practice area that covers four states. That’s enough. No more. We treasure our land." — Maria E. Tussing, WLJ Correspondent