The Nation : Bombed and Strafed by a Relic of the Cold War

Tom Wolf is the author of "Crooked Timber," an environmental history of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, to be published next year by the University Press of Colorado

Where I grew up in Colorado, "Jet Noise: The Sound of Freedom" was the top bumper sticker--without the question mark. My father was a federal employee, and we lived between an Air Force base and the Denver airport. Even today, a large proportion of Coloradoans work for the Defense Department and its contractors. Colorado historians tell us we've always had this love-hate relationship with Uncle Sam. Lately, it's all hate.

Here in southern Colorado, the Wilderness of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains forms our fortress walls. The mountains are the most ecologically diverse of any in the great Rocky Mountain chain. Motorized vehicles are forbidden in the wilderness, but its airspace is vulnerable to any intruder. We have always lived with some jet noise, but lately the sound of freedom has turned deafening.

The Air National Guard, along with its Air Force allies, began to besiege the region's six counties with its Colorado Airspace Initiative, which would increase annual "sorties"--screaming, ear-rending, tree-top-level dogfights--by thousands, with no upper limit. The area would become a permanent Military Operations Area.

We made the mistake of demanding an Environmental Impact Statement, hoping that we could state a scientific case against the Guard's initiative. In return, we got an endless series of public meetings, "scoping sessions," lies, inaccuracies, contradictions and evasions--all paid for with our tax dollars. Whatever its grasp of military tactics, the Guard understands war by attrition.

Unless the Federal Aviation Administration, which rules on all military airspace, rejects the initiative, the Guard will bomb and boom us to kingdom come.

You can't hear, see or smell the enemy until too late, until he has blasted you from a clear sky, dipped his wings in a mocking salute and screamed on to torture your neighbors with his sonic booms and his radar-confusing flares and aluminum-silicate chaff. Treetop-level sub-to-supersonic flights have reverberated through the valleys around the Sangres for at least 20 years. During the Cold War, we put up with the bombs and booms. We took it for granted that behind them lurked some deep, dark reason.

Then the Cold War ended. Then the effects on livestock became all too clear. Then the effects on wildlife and pack animals in the back country started to show. And then came the earsplitting, heart-racing effects on a growing army of retirees and a real-estate industry.

The war with the Guard has turned uncivil. The main event pits ranchers, realtors and recreationists against a decrepit wing of the U.S. Air Force. It wasn't that long ago when the ranchers and recreationists were squaring off over wilderness designation. Indeed, they didn't strike a deal until last year. But the Guard has kept them united.

The Guard is about as rusty a weapon as there is the nation's arsenal. In the last 40 years, America has called up the Colorado Air Guard exactly once. Furthermore, the economies around the Sangres are changing, from traditional ranching and timbering to a mix of organic-beef or bison ranching, including a thriving business in ranching-for-wildlife. The recreation industry includes a booming second-home sector for retirees. More than 40 spiritual communities have made the Crestone area on the Sangres' west side a world center for contemplative religions.

The Guard claims that the new Denver International Airport restricts its airspace. In the face of rising local and statewide opposition, serious budgetary concerns and major environmental effects, it is determined to expand its training in the area. "We're in it for the long haul," said Maj. Thomas Schultz, public-affairs officer for the National Guard at Buckley Air Base. He says domestic training operations are increasingly important for the national defense, now that overseas missions have been sharply reduced. "If we don't fly, we lose our combat readiness," Schultz asserts. "This is a matter of pride for Colorado: Its 120th squadron was the first unit to be federally recognized in 1946. The Air National Guard was born here."

The residents of the valleys around the Sangres are not impressed. That's partly because so many of them are retired military or veterans themselves. Take Ray Koch, a naval-aviation veteran and former aerospace engineer for Martin Marietta. He spent years designing more sophisticated versions of the hardware and software systems that drive schemes like the Guard's. He doesn't have much respect for them or their systems, which he regards as Stone Age technology. "The Air Guard is a dinosaur," he says, adding that low-level flight training has about as much relevance to contemporary warfare as Kit Carson's pistols. Cheap, readily available surface-to-air missiles have rendered the Guard obsolete.

Koch has a solution to the dispute. He has designed a demonstration of the Guard's latest proposal to minimize impacts on our valleys and our wilderness. F-16s would overfly specific noise-sensitive points at typical airspeeds and power settings. Video and audio equipment would record the effects. Flight-data systems would correlate with ground data to validate speed, power setting, altitude and aircraft altitude.

If the Guard's planes perform as it claims, we will leave our back yard open to them. If they perform as we claim, they will leave our back yard forever. The Guard has yet to respond. And so we continue to cringe when we consider the fire danger from crashing planes and flying flares. Could it be that silence has become the sound of freedom?*

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