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Fly Over Home

Conflict over Air Force training flights highlights New Mexico’s uncomfortable relationship with its military legacy

November 17, 2010, 1:00 am

When public outcry catapulted the flyovers into top news, New Mexico’s federal representatives weighed in. 

Former congressional candidate Carol Miller says military spending in New Mexico doesn’t benefit average citizens.

Following the lead of Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., three members of New Mexico’s delegation requested that the Air Force extend the public comment period for LATN by approximately one month. The Sept. 24 letter signed by Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, and Rep. Ben Ray Luján emphasizes the need for the Air Force to allow citizens the opportunity to voice their opinions. 

But the three also make clear their support of the training area. 

“We support this mission at Cannon Air Force Base and believe it is essential to the security of our nation,” the letter states. “The outstanding training opportunities that New Mexico provides can help the 27th SOW better prepare for real life situations and save lives as a result.” 

Following public reaction against LATN across northern New Mexico, Luján also stated he was “very concerned” about the potential impact of the proposal on New Mexicans and their way of life—and that it was critically important that the military provide opportunities for public comment. “New Mexicans are my primary concern,” he said in a prepared statement, “and their voices must be heard.”

That said, Cannon plays a role in Curry County’s economy—and Luján has consistently said that military personnel must be kept from harm. The implication, of course, is that airmen and women will be kept safe if provided opportunities to train within the LATN area.

In fact, if there is one topic that has always led to bipartisan consensus among New Mexico’s congressional delegation, it’s military spending in the state. 

A critic of those priorities, Carol Miller wasn’t surprised by the LATN proposal.

Outgoing executive director of the National Center for Frontier Communities, an organization focused on rural communities, Miller points out that New Mexico’s skies were offered up to Cannon five years ago. In June 2005, BRAC held a meeting in Clovis to discuss possible closure of the base. BRAC had first recommended Cannon close in 2002, Miller says, but New Mexico’s congressional delegation (including former Sen. Pete Domenici) ensured that didn’t happen by encouraging Cannon to find a new mission. 

She notes that support for LATN can even be traced back to Gov. Bill Richardson’s 2006 State of the State speech. At the time, he said:

Last year, we managed to keep Cannon open—at least until 2010…The key now is finding a new mission for Cannon. It’s vitally important that we move as quickly as possible…I’ve met with Air Force officials…and let them know that the state is prepared to do everything we can and provide whatever assistance is needed to secure a permanent mission for Cannon. Today, I ask the Legislature for the resources to double the size of the base—which will help increase the opportunities for new missions.

Miller points out, however, that military money is not doing much to improve the lives of most of the state’s citizens. 

“There’s no economic advantage to the area around Cannon—it’s similar to Los Alamos,” Miller, also a former Green Party candidate who ran most recently for the third congressional seat in 2008, says. “You can look up to Los Alamos all the time, on your drive to work, or to Española: There’s a trillion dollars of our tax dollars up there, surrounded by a sea of poverty.” 

It’s the same situation with Cannon, she says: “Cannon creates that same myth”—that military spending is what keeps communities alive. 

She points out that military spending creates the fewest jobs per dollar than any other industry. 

“Fields with the highest jobs per dollar are human needs jobs like clean energy, health care and education,” she says, citing a 2009 report from Foreign Policy in Focus, a think tank supported by the Institute for Policy Studies. That report analyzes what would happen if $1 billion were spent on each of three domestic projects other than the military. The report’s authors show that investments in clean energy, health care and education create a “much larger” number of jobs across all pay ranges, including mid-range jobs (those that pay between $32,000 and $64,000) and high pay-jobs (paying more than $64,000). 

Cannon has been open since World War II, and yet the economic indicators for the area have never truly improved. Curry County is far below the national average in terms of median household income and above the national average when it comes to poverty levels. 

Rather than trying to be creative and encourage new industries—such as alternative energy—or develop new economic models, legislators simply continue supporting more and more military funding. But it simply isn’t sustainable, Miller says. And the longer New Mexicans remain addicted to a World War II-style military economy, the more they will remain ensnared within a cycle of poverty. 

Again, LATN is just one small piece of the issue, but it’s the one that has caught the public’s attention. 

“Nobody involves us and then, all of a sudden, we get a notice that there’s an airspace change, and they only want to give a month for public comment,” Miller says. “Our delegation, they got us an extra month, but their response has been shocking.”

Perhaps equally surprising was the turnaround from a local governmental body that bucked the opposition and, instead, decided to support the flyovers: the Santa Fe City Council.

Like other governments in the north, the Santa Fe City Council originally—and predictably—began moving toward a public resolution against the flyovers.

Initially, Santa Fe City Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger introduced a resolution opposing LATN. She eventually changed it to say that the council supports military training, while urging the military to complete the proper environmental studies. It seems, she says, that there is enough room in New Mexico to provide training while, at the same time, avoiding population centers. Leading up to the vote, she heard from probably 30 or 40 constituents—a relatively large number—who opposed LATN under any circumstances. 

Councilor Rosemary Romero hopes the Air Force ultimately conducts a more intensive environmental assessment for the LATN.

Then, on Nov. 10, the council voted to support the Air Force’s plans, provided it completes environmental studies. 

But those studies are already underway; the military is in the beginning stages of its environmental assessment (EA), a study required under the National Environmental Policy Act, Cannon’s van der Oord says. 

Once the draft EA—which will list comments submitted by the public (the comment period ended this week)—is completed, it will be made available to the public, which can again offer input. Once the final EA has been completed, it will be sent to the Air Force Special Operations Command’s headquarters in Hurlburt Field, Fla., which will make the final determination. It will either decide there are no significant impacts—and the LATN area will be open for business—or it will decide the Air Force must undertake a more stringent study, an environmental impact statement, or EIS.
For now, van der Oord expects the EA process to take nine months to one year. 

Councilor Rosemary Romero would like the Air Force to undertake an EIS. 

“People are most concerned about quality of life impacts,” she says, pointing out an environmental impact statement—which requires that agencies consider impacts to everything from wildlife to cultural resources—would ensure the military addresses and mitigates many concerns. 

Councilor Calvert points out that the Air Force is already conducting these training flights—and will continue to do so whether or not LATN is implemented. The same type of aircraft stationed at Cannon are already flown out of Kirtland Air Force Base on the southern edge of Albuquerque. But the existing routes are short and narrow and do not include much mountainous terrain. 

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