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Local leaders want input into USAF plans; Roswell city leaders to meet with AF officials

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This photo from Holloman Air Force base shows two F-16 fighter jets from an out-of-state airbase flying over New Mexico. (Submitted Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Local leaders are hoping that the U.S. Air Force will involve area residents in discussions about the potential expansion of its use of airspace over Roswell and southeast New Mexico, given worries over harmful economic consequences to the area should the expansion become a reality.

The Air Force is drafting an Environmental Impact Statement about two possible changes to Military Operations Areas in New Mexico that could enhance F-16 fighter pilot training conducted at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo. The MOA expansion shown here would affect airports in Roswell, Carlsbad and Artesia. (Submitted Graphic)

“That’s the major problem,” said Kyle Armstrong of Armstrong Energy Corp., a member of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp. “We aren’t hearing from them, and they aren’t hearing from us. They can essentially publish their plan without having gotten any input from the public in southeast New Mexico.”

Air Force officials, including Alan Shafer, lead airspace-analyst based at the Pentagon, are expected in Roswell Wednesday for an initial “meet and greet” with local leaders, according to City Manager Joe Neeb.

He said part of that meeting will be to request discussions with the public.

“What we are trying to do is get some public communication out of it,” Neeb said.

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Armstrong stressed that he is disconcerted that, so far, the Air Force has not been willing to meet with economic development representatives from Roswell, Artesia and Carlsbad.

Previously, three “scoping” meetings were held in September during a public comment period that closed Sept. 25.

Those meetings, which some criticize as not widely announced, were held in Carlsbad, Truth or Consequences and Las Cruces and followed the Aug. 25 publication in the Federal Register of the notice of intent to begin an Environmental Impact Statement about the airspace changes. A meeting with the Grants County Board of Commissioners in Silver City also was held in November after residents in that area requested that their voices be heard.

With the scoping period over, the Air Force is now working on the draft of its Environmental Impact Statement, and it plans to hold public hearings once that draft is complete in either late summer or early fall, an Air Force public affairs officer said.

“Locations that didn’t have a scoping meeting may likely have a hearing,” said Capt. Kaylee Ausbun, chief of public affairs for the 49th wing. “The draft EIS sparks the timeline for the hearings.”

The Air Force has announced its plans to re-examine its airspace utilizations at various places in the country, with the Holloman Air Force Base region in Alamogordo a high priority due to its role in the training of F-16 fighter pilots.

In the Notice of Intent published six months ago, the Air Force talked about the possibility of altering two Military Operations Areas (MOA) in New Mexico to aid in that training effort.

In one alternative, it would increase the MOA west of Alamogordo and White Sands Missile Range near the Gila National Forest and add another MOA nearby. In another alternative, it would expand the MOA in southeastern New Mexico — called the Talon MOA — which affects airspace around Roswell, Artesia and Carlsbad. According to the Federal Register notice, the Air Force might decide to adopt both alternatives or only one or neither.

According to press reports of public meetings in Silver City, people expressed worries about an expanded or additional MOA because of the noise from supersonic jets, the increased fire risks should pilots deploy flares as is sometimes done in their training, as well as concerns about how the flights would affect wildlife, including endangered species.

In Roswell and southeast New Mexico, much of the concern expressed so far in letters to state and federal government officials has focused on the impacts to commercial airline flights, cargo flights and other commercial aviation enterprises, air ambulance services and military flights by other branches.

In one letter, local business representatives indicate that U.S. Navy pilots, who have trained at the Roswell airfield, might be deterred from future training here, which would be a loss of $1.5 million to the local economy.

Another letter indicated that an expanded MOA in southeast New Mexico will force commercial airliners to fly lower during landings and takeoffs, substantially increasing their fuel costs and possibly leading them to avoid airports in the region. It also expressed that air ambulance flights could be delayed or re-routed and that private aircraft operators in Eddy County who monitor their oil and gas pipelines and wells from the air could be hampered.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association also has written the Air Force to ask that the “negative effects” of large airspace areas be mitigated.

“General aviation is vital to many aviation and non-aviation businesses in New Mexico, which use these aircraft to move personnel, equipment and supplies,” wrote Director of Airspace and Air Traffic Rune Duke.

He also noted that a 2009 report on the aviation industry in New Mexico found that it generated $3.1 billion in economic activity each year and supported 48,000 jobs.

While the scoping period officially has ended, Capt. Ausbun said that comments will still be considered as the draft is prepared and public hearings are held.

“Comments are considered throughout this entire process,” she said.

She said for the Air Force to review comments or questions, they should be submitted online at HollomanAFBAirspaceEIS.com or in writing to Holloman Airspace EIS, c/o Cardno, 501 Butler Farm Road, Suite H, Hampton, Virginia, 23666.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.