In late 1999 the Air National Guard (ANG), Air National Guard Readiness Center (ANGRC) proposed the development of an air-to-ground training range in the state of Montana. The purpose of the proposed range is to enhance combat readiness by improving training efficiency for the 120th Fighter Wing (120 FW) of the Montana ANG (MTANG), based at the Great Falls International Airport. Development of the range would achieve the following objectives: Significantly reduce the distance traveled to conduct required air-to-ground training, thereby resulting in cost savings; significantly increase training time versus time spent in transit, thereby enhancing training effectiveness; ensure availability of training times; and reduce scheduling conflicts with other units who train at ranges currently used by the 120 FW.
The 120th Fighter Wing (FW) is seeking a Montana location for essential air-to-ground training. Currently this training is accomplished by flying to Utah and Idaho. Discussions began in 1998 between the Air Force and tribal officials about developing a training range near the Fort Belknap Reservation to provide local training for the 120th FW and economic benefits to the reservation.
The range would provide scoring capability for air-to-ground delivery of inert training munitions. This type of training is necessary to satisfy training requirements for the general-purpose mission of the 120 FW. Creation of restricted airspace would occur within the existing Hays Military Operations Area (MOA) to accommodate approximately 1,000 F-16 air-to-ground sorties at the proposed training range.
The proposal would enhance use of the Hays MOA to include a target range for bombing and strafing by F16 aircraft. It would consist of a small controlled range in which up to four aircraft at a time would practice in coordination with a range control staff who would coordinate the activity, score accuracy, and monitor the range for safety. The munitions used would be inert: small "dummy" practice bombs and nonexplosive bullets.
An impact area of about 640 acres (roughly 1 square mile in size) would be laid out with dispersed targets and strafe pits. Around the impact area would be a larger safety zone (3x5 miles). The target impact area would be surrounded by a safety buffer zone with restricted public access in order to safely accommodate these activities. The total range size would be 3-by-5 miles, or approximately 9,600 acres.
Support facilities would also be built in the safety zone. Employment opportunities include range management, target construction and maintenance, security, road maintenance, fire break maintenance, fire suppression, snow removal, communications and vehicle maintenance.
The range would be comprised of several different elements. About 90 percent of the acreage would remain as open space, functioning as a safety buffer zone for the target areas. Inside the buffer zone would be several targets for training munitions delivery. A series of scoring devices would be placed in the target impact area to allow for assessment of training ordnance accuracy on each delivery. A group of support buildings would provide facilities near the target impact area for personnel involved in the daily operation, maintenance, and security of the range. The proposed action would also involve establishment of one-quarter-acre electronic emitter sites at various off-range locations. These emitter sites would serve as operating locations for mobile electronic emitters that simulate anti-aircraft defensive systems. Each site would consist of a gravel, unfenced parking area designed to support temporary use.
The ANG has initiated a process to identify feasible range siting areas (i.e., alternatives) in Montana that would best support MTANG training and accommodate safe aircraft operations while minimizing impacts on the environment, local communities, and military and civilian airspace. The proposed range location must be within a 150 nautical mile radius from the Great Falls International Airport and on land underlying the Hays MOA.
Alternative 1, the preferred site, is located in Blaine County in the central portion of T. 27 N., R. 21 E. It is about 3 miles west of the Fort Belknap Reservation and 2 miles north of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument and includes 720 acres of public land in scattered tracts. Two alternatives are also being evaluated in Phillips County: Alternative 2 has about 2,900 acres of public land and Alternative 3 has about 4,400 acres.
Two of the alternatives initially satisfying the siting criteria are located in the vicinity of the Fort Belknap Reservation in north-central Montana. The MTANG and members of the Fort Belknap Indian Community have discussed the feasibility of potential range development in these areas. Consequently, the Fort Belknap Community Council identified one alternative location immediately west of the Reservation and one alternative location on the Reservation. The ANG is continuing its effort to identify additional alternative locations for the proposed range.
Major resource values present on or near some of the public land tracts include grazing operations, wildlife habitat, cultural and religious values, and specially designated areas (national historic trail, wilderness study areas, areas of critical environmental concern, Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument). The BLM's major concern is how the proposed change in the use of the Hays MOA would affect recreational use or other resources of the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River and the surrounding National Monument.
The MTANG has worked closely with local BLM offices, landowners, Montana and local elected officials, Montana's congressional delegation, and Defense and Interior staff. The proposal was publicized in major Montana newspapers in late 1999. Initial public scoping meetings were held in six communities. A Fort Belknap traditional society has expressed opposition to the proposal; other public controversy was not evident as of July 2001.
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