The U.S. Air Force announced Jan. 16 that it signed a record of decision regarding the expansion of the Powder River Training Area at Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, S.D., effectively offering its final decision on the project.
By Bryce Martin
N.D. Group Editor
According to the signed document, the Air Force selected “Modified Alternative A” as the plan for expansion.
“It was what they wanted all along, so we’re still stuck with the area over us, both low and high,” said Rodney Schaaf, president of the Bowman County Airport Authority.
The project now moves on for approval by the Federal Aviation Authority, which is expected to issue its record of decision within 45 days, or on April 3. The new training complex is expected to be established in the spring or summer.
Members of the Bowman County Airport Authority publicly voiced opposition to the plan from the start and most recently attended a conference call meeting between the Bowman County Board of Commissioners and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s representative to reiterate the negative points of expanding the training area over southwest North Dakota.
The Bowman County Airport Authority said the low altitudes at which the large bombing aircraft would fly over Bowman County would have negative impacts for the area.
When the record of decision was released, Schaaf said the airport authority made further comments to Heitkamp, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Rep. Kevin Cramer to encourage them to work with the FAA to consider some of the recommendations set forth to limit impacts.
The Air Force did agree, however, to establish a ground communications system in the area prior to utilizing the 500-foot minimum level at which bombers can fly. That would make it easier for pilots on the ground to know if the training area is active or inactive.
That was one of Schaaf’s recommendations.
“If they can’t raise the floor or the ceiling of the area, then we want some sort of ground communication system,” Schaaf said.
Whether the Air Force will stick to its agreement “remains to be seen,” he added.
According to a statement released by Hoeven’s office, Miranda Ballentine, the Air Force’s Assistant Secretary for Installations, confirmed to the senator that the Air Force would not start using certain low altitude sections of the training area until communications equipment is installed. The Air Force expects installation of that equipment will take a few months, according to the statement.
“It’s a good first step,” Schaaf said.
Recommendations could still be applied to the project, said Schaaf, as the FAA considers its decision, which will set final specifications for the expanded training area.
The final recommendations now lie in the hands of federal legislators.
A simple referencing of an aviation map will show a sparsely populated airspace above southwest North Dakota, echoing the ground’s similarly sparse population.
That, according to Schaaf, leads Washington, D.C. policymakers to believe “people don’t live out here.”
“That was the first battle—there are people out here. They do their jobs, raise kids, pay taxes and vote,” he said. “We have issues here.”
Still, North Dakota’s federal representation feels hopeful.
“(The) Record of Decision opens the door for better training for Minot’s B-52s, while limiting the impact on civilian flights in southwestern North Dakota, which was a concern we worked to address,” Hoeven said in a statement. “I have requested that the Air Force continue working with local aviation interests as the range comes into use.”
In the past few months, Heitkamp stressed to multiple top Air Force officials about how the agency must live up to its commitments to address the concerns of the communities and have more open communication.
“It’s crucial that we keep our rural towns healthy, and our local economies thriving by continuing to secure the access of our pilots, airports and businesses need to do their jobs throughout this expansion in Powder River,” Heitkamp said in a statement.