The Rocky Mountains burst out of the short grass prairies of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado with a special beauty that is part of the DNA of everyone who has ever lived here. People from all over the world seek out this landscape. This is the “purple mountain majesty” of “America the Beautiful.”
Residents of this area are deeply rooted and very protective of this place. The area teems with wildlife, breathtaking peaks, stretches of wilderness, forests and natural wonders like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Shiprock, and the Rio Grande Gorge.
Tribal lands in the area contain three United Nations designated World Heritage Sites: Taos Pueblo, Mesa Verde, and Chaco Canyon. Taos Pueblo has been continuously inhabited for more than 1000 years; in addition to being a world treasure, it is also designated a National Historic Landmark. More than twenty sovereign nations live in this area today, rooted to their lands and sacred sites.
Yet the people in this area, joined by allies across the globe, are now fighting every day to keep the U.S. Air Force from turning this wonderful place into a very low altitude special operations flying and spying training area. If the military gets its way, this will be America’s own Af-Pak-Iran of mountain villages used for war training.
Over one year ago in September 2010, the Air Force announced that it was going to create a low altitude training area over New Mexico and Colorado — very low, as in 300 feet above ground level. Most nights of the year, there would be an average of three flights zooming overhead at 250 miles per hour: jumbo C-130 Hercules tankers full of fuel for the crash-prone, obscenely expensive, Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
The Defense Department has tried to cancel the Osprey since 1989. The Governmental Accountability Office testified to Congress as recently as 2009 that the Osprey should be terminated. The cost of each Osprey has ballooned to more than $11,000 per hour of flight time. Despite these objections and expenses, Congress continues to fund the defense contractors Boeing and Bell to build more.
The massive expanse of terrain desired by the U.S. Air Force for this special operations practice may be the largest single taking ever subjected to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. It comprises thirty-nine very large counties in two states, a vast area of some 60,000 square miles – 38.4 million acres – containing large swaths of the pristine southern Rocky Mountains and short grass prairie. This area is beloved, fiercely beloved, by those who live here and visit.
The vast majority of this area is protected, or is it? Unlike most of the rest of the United States, much of it is communally owned by sovereign American Indian nations, Spanish and Mexican community land grants, and the public. All citizens of the United States own the extensive federal public lands.
The constitutions of both the State of New Mexico and the State of Colorado designate large amounts of state lands to be forever held in trust for the benefit of public education in each state. There are nearly 20 million combined state acres, with the majority in New Mexico, much of it included in the low altitude training area (LATA). The military ignores the importance of state trust lands and any potential change in value that might occur under the proposed low-altitude training area. Coloradoans and New Mexicans are bringing to light that degradation of these lands would cause serious impacts to education funding into the future for all the students in the two states.
I have spent the last year as part of the Peaceful Skies Coalition. We have come together to stop the Air Force from implementing this disastrous low-altitude flight plan. The coalition has brought together an amazing cross-section of people: tribal leaders and local governments, ranchers and environmentalists, veterans and pacifists. People across the entire political spectrum are working together to save a place, a very special place.
After a career focused on public health and rural development, getting involved in military spending has been a real eye opener for me. During the decades I spent in D.C., whether fighting for increased access to health care or community development funds to sustain the fragile economies of frontier and rural communities, I never really knew how extreme the transfer of wealth to defense contractors and the military had become. I hadn’t studied how endless militarization had literally sucked the life-blood out of rural America and replaced it with the myth that our only hope is to be resource-extraction colonies or military colonies of a globalized economy, for the benefit of the wealthy few.
While I focused on trying to salvage a health program or increase rural development funds through one farm bill after another, defense contractors had received trillions of dollars for war and the practice of war. Prize-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy speaks around the world about the dangers of global militarization, reminding us that there was a time “when weapons were manufactured in order to fight wars. Now wars are manufactured in order to sell weapons.”
That is how it feels on the ground under this latest proposed sky grab.
As the Peaceful Skies Coalition studied the Air Force proposal, we learned two things. First, the military already has too much airspace, more than half of the skies over the United States, and second, the costs of this proposal and the other military sky and land grabs are contributing to the bankruptcy of our country.
We also learned that communities throughout rural America are fighting to stop more Air Force flights overhead. In addition to New Mexico and Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, Kentucky and Maine are some of the other states fighting intrusive low-level flights.
In addition to the decline of land values and threats to school funding noted above, low altitude flights imperil rural communities in many ways. They hurt tourism-dependent local economies, harm wildlife and range animals, pollute agricultural land and, of course, degrade the quality of life for all people under the flight paths.
Further, airplane owners and pilots are uniting to stop the proposed increase in low altitude military flights. Many pilots have testified that current simulation programs are sophisticated enough to provide training for lower cost and with fewer environmental impacts. Pilots are already having a hard time flying in the West; at forums on the propopsed training areas, they testified how hard it already is to zig-zag around military airspace just to fly from one place to another.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s a very large, multi-issue Rural Coalition made one of its most important projects the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability. The Library of the University of Nevada, Reno, holds the archive of the Rural Coalition, describing it as follows:
The Coalition has about 120 member organizations which are working together on such issues as agriculture and food policy, rural employment and job creation, community development, natural resources, and the plight of Native Americans. In the 1980s the Rural Coalition created the Rural Military Issues Project which is designed to give rural Americans a greater voice in the decisions of the Pentagon which affect their lives.
Anyone interested in building on the earlier model of the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability can contact the Peaceful Skies Coalition. Rural people can stand together for real sustainable community development and a better future for our communities and the nation as a whole.
Carol Miller is a community organizer from Ojo Sarco, New Mexico (pop. 400) and an advocate for Geographic Democracy: the belief that the United States must guarantee equal rights and opportunities to participate in the national life, no matter where someone lives.