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37 Join WA Wild on Letter Urging the U.S. Navy to Reconsider Proposed Expansion of Flight Training Areas

Posted on Feb 27, 2024 in Conservation News, WA Wild Blog
Recently, the U.S. Navy opened a public comment period regarding their Eastern Washington Airspace Extension Environmental Assessment for the Okanogan D Military Operation Area (MOA). According to the draft Environmental Assessment, new training exercises will be carried out in expanded airspace over the Methow Valley, including portions of the Pasayten and Lake Chelan/Sawtooth Wilderness Areas and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. In its current form, the Navy’s Environmental Assessment does not adequately address concerns about the potential negative impacts this proposed expansion may have on wilderness character, wildlife, recreation, and the local communities of the Methow Valley. As such, Washington Wild coordinated a letter calling for a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Lake Ann from Maple Pass Loop in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Andy Porter

As Americans, we all understand and respect the need for our military to provide quality training to ensure our troops are prepared to defend our country. At the same time, we strongly believe it is possible to conduct appropriate training exercises without compromising the significant investments in environmental conservation made over the past few decades by the American public, U.S. Congress, federal agencies, and residents. We are dedicated to finding a solution that will maintain military readiness while safeguarding recreational access, fostering thriving fish and wildlife populations, and preserving healthy ecosystems, as well as supporting the economies and well-being of surrounding communities. 

As you can see from the Navy’s proposal, the expanded flight area (the Okanogan D MOA) will allow flights over large portions of the Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest as well as the Pasayten and Lake Chelan/Sawtooth Wilderness Areas. In its current form, the Navy’s Environmental Assessment does not adequately address concerns about the potential negative impacts the proposed training expansion may have on significant portions of federally designated Wilderness Areas, critical habitat for threatened and endangered species, world-class recreational opportunities, key drivers of the local economy, and the quality of life and safety for the communities that call the Methow Valley home. Because of these factors, we believe that this proposal is considered a major federal action, and as such, that a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is required to be prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

The 37 organizations that signed onto Washington Wild’s letter to the Navy represent local businesses and conservation, recreation, wildlife, and civic groups that are heavily invested in the decades of hard-fought protections for the recreation opportunities, wildlife habitat, local economic benefits, and quality of life for communities in and near the proposed Okanogan D Military Operation Area (MOA).

Key Takeaways

The proposed expansion area does not appear to provide any unique benefits—In the U.S. Navy’s official announcement of the public comment period, it cites that the reason for the expansion is to “help alleviate substantial impacts from the loss of a portion of military training airspace the FAA removed in 2020 to address civilian air traffic safety requirements.” As such, we are asking the Navy to consider a more comprehensive range of options for the expansion that will not take place over such a sensitive area. 

 

From Hoodoo Peak, Lake Chelan/Sawtooth Wilderness, Brewbooks flickr

Using Mean Sea Level (MSL) as the sole metric for determining flight distance is misleading—The high-elevation landscape characteristic of the Okanogan D MOA, with peaks reaching up to 9,000 ft, makes the vertical distance between aircraft flights and the ground much less than many flat lower-elevation areas in the existing MOAs. An EIS should rectify this by including additional measurements.

 

 

A Canda lynx, just one of several endangered or threatened species that call this area home

The impact of noise pollution on endangered and threatened wildlife is a grave concern—The North Cascades serve as strongholds for several endangered and threatened species. These species include salmon, steelhead, and bull trout, northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, Canada lynx, wolves, and grizzly bears. The proposed training flights, which may occur as low as 2500 feet above the ground, could significantly disrupt these animals’ behavior and render their habitats inhospitable. This could have a devastating impact on their populations and the wider ecosystem.

 

Windy Peak in the Pasayten Wilderness, Andy Porter

Flights will harm the ‘wilderness character’ of the Pasayten and Lake Chelan/Sawtooth Wilderness Areas—Designated under the Wilderness Act of 1964, these areas have been granted the highest level of federal protection to ensure that the American people, both present and future generations, can enjoy the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. The concept of “wilderness character” is based on the idea that these areas should provide every American with recreational access to ecosystems that are free from modern human manipulation or impact. These areas should also provide opportunities for quiet solitude.

 

Fishing in the Methow Valley, Hannah Dewey

The well-being of the communities that call the Methow Valley home is at risk—The proposed training expansion could have significant impacts on the local communities of the Methow Valley, including Winthrop, Mazama, and Twisp. These rural communities depend on the roughly half a million outdoor enthusiasts who visit the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest each year to support their local economies. Therefore, the draft EIS should not only consider the direct impact on recreational opportunities but also the indirect impact that the proposed activities may have on the economic inputs to the local communities.  

READ THE FULL LETTER