by Pam Zubeck
These notes pertain to the December 4, 2014 public meeting in Cripple Creek, regarding the Army’s proposal to establish a Right of Way agreement with the BLM for 46 helicopter landing zones in Park, Teller, and Fremont counties.
There were at least 130 people present; I didn’t do a headcount. The BLM asked people to sign in, compiling a list of contact phone numbers and email addresses. The meeting was not recorded. Neither the Army nor the BLM assigned an individual to take notes or to keep minutes. I am not aware of any official documentation of the meeting other than those sign-in sheets. No members of the press identified themselves in my hearing. One Teller County commissioner was present, as was a representative from Senator Michael Bennet’s office (who noted that she’d only had 2 days notice about the meeting); other government officials may have been present.
The meeting opened around 4:45 with an apology from Keith Berger, the Field Manager of the Royal Gorge BLM office, saying that the intent was for the meeting to consist of an open house from 4:30 until 5:30, when formal presentations were set to begin. He apologized that the schedule had not been communicated more clearly, since it was clear everyone was expecting presentations to begin at 4:30. I mention this because apologies for poor communication on the part of the BLM was the overriding theme of the evening.
BLM opened the meeting at 5:15 with an emphasis that the Army’s proposal was in the early stages of the review process. While stressing the importance of public input, he noted that comments would not be recorded and encouraged people throughout the evening to submit written comments to the Royal Gorge Field office. Mr. Berger noted that the Army proposal had been received in 2013 and had not been acted on until now because of budget shortfalls. BLM presented an overview of the NEPA review process. Their presentation was an expansion of the slides available on the BLM website (“BLM presentation” under the Public Meeting Documents heading), with additional slides detailing the timeline and review process. That schedule calls for a decision document to be released in Spring 2015. A staffer (neglected to take her name, sorry; first name I believe is Sarah) presented the NEPA information; Mr. Berger responded to questions throughout the evening.
Capt. Pete Matthews from Fort Carson gave the Army presentation, following the slides available on the BLM website (“Fort Carson Presentation”). He opened with an emphasis on the use of Army Helicopter resources in local emergencies such as fires and the Boulder floods.
The meeting was then opened up for questions from the audience. I took notes on the general content of questions and comments and will summarize some of the more cogent ones here. I did not record names.
The first questioner said that the Interior Board of Land Appeals had ruled that Right of Way agreements are not the appropriate instrument for agreements involving military maneuvers and questioned the legality of the Plan of Development and the review process. BLM responded that the guidance they’d received from higher in the organization indicated that the Army’s proposal for a ROW as appropriate.
Other questions about process pertained to Environmental Analysis vs. Environmental Impact Statements (BLM: the current EA could trigger an EIS) and about the timing/structure of appeals (it depends on recommended alternatives).
One gentleman spoke in favor of the proposal, saying he’d be happy to lose a few thousand dollars on his property values if it saved a pilot’s life. Many of the commenters for the rest of the evening emphasized their support of the military or acknowledged the need for pilot training opportunities, before going on to articulate their concerns or objections to the Army’s proposal or the BLM’s handling of events to date.
Many comments emphasized the lack of communication on the part of BLM, to which BLM responded that they issue press releases and then rely on media to spread the word. Landowners in and adjacent to the Mountain Training areas have not been notified individually. I sat next to a couple from the Tallahassee area that was there because I’d sent an email to the Tallahassee Area Community organization the day before. Homeowner’s associations in the affected areas have not been notified (it does not appear that ranchers with BLM grazing leases on affected plots have been notified, either, although this was not discussed specifically at the meeting). The chief of the Four Mile Fire Department said that he’d heard about the meeting and the proposal two days before, by word of mouth; he stated that he’d contacted fellow emergency service organizations in the area and none of them had been notified. He went on to comment that helicopter traffic would cause rubbernecking accidents on the Gold Belt Tour Byway and that counties would be liable for the expenses. Counties would also bear the expense of emergency services in the event of a helicopter crash; Capt. Matthews acknowledged this, saying that once pilots leave Fort Carson airspace, emergency response is the responsibility of local and regional agencies.
Several individuals raised issues pertaining to the Army’s maps, which they said were of poor quality and out of date. Army acknowledged that potential landing zones were identified using maps, not site inspection. One resident had used Google Earth to identify about 40 homes inside the perimeter of various proposed landing zones. BLM has made no site visits and I did not hear them state that site visits would be part of the review.
Numerous people commented on noise impacts, and five or six related incidents in which Army helicopters had buzzed or hovered over their homes under the current Casual Use agreement. These incidents include night flybys and low-flying helicopters in areas far removed from existing landing zones. Army made clear that complaints are/would be handled by their Public Affairs Office. Army provided a handout with Public Affairs contact information, which hints at, but does not provide “proper procedures”; Capt. Matthews indicated that tail numbers of aircraft are part of that procedure. BLM acknowledged that there was a need for monitoring mechanisms and accountability to be incorporated in any recommended action, and encouraged attendees to formally submit their comments on such matters.
While I understand that BLM is relying on public input to identify issues, there was no indication during the meeting that BLM has proactively begun any of their own research, even though the original scoping period expired October 31. When asked why Forest Service was curtailing use of landing sites on FS property, Berger replied, essentially, “We don’t know, but we’ll be asking them.” Berger also indicated that BLM was “just finding out” about other sites in the continental US that the Army uses for HAMET exercises; the Air National Guard station in Eagle County and Fort Bliss were mentioned; my own cursory internet search on “HAMET” and “Army helicopter training” earlier in the week indicates that exercises have also been conducted at Holloman AFB and Fort Drum.
Other comments touched on the fact that helicopters under the current Casual Use agreement have been seen landing on private property and in landing zones that were excluded by the BLM in under that agreement. Property owners with conservation easements on their land are concerned about ongoing preservation of conservation values. One person noted that Park County has airspace regulations and should not be considered unregulated airspace. People raised concerns about helicopter conflicts with private drones and Flight for Life helicopters, liability for accidents, and decreases in property values with associated decreases in tax revenue.
Toward the end of the meeting, Berger indicated that BLM would try to develop a scoping report and post it on the website.
I had several questions of my own, but will write those up and submit them to BLM, as raising issues at the meeting was pointless with regard to getting anything into the record.
The most striking detail was the turnout. The BLM electronic door counter registered 162 by the time we (Donna and I) got there. There was some coming and going. But an informal count came up with a number well above one hundred. By a large margin those who came wanted to express disapproval for the project. Many had heard about it from a front page story in the Pikes Peak Courier.
To quote the opening line: "In a place where elk, and wild turkeys roam, where stunning rock formations and lush hillsides cast a a pastoral setting, helicopters from Fort Carson are disturbing the peace in the Four Mile area."
Fort Carson and BLM staff made the opening presentation with a broad overview, map of the landing zones etc. They stated then and reiterated several times later that this was not yet a done deal. They got lots of push back throughout the meeting countering that statement It was noted several times in rebuttal that actually all this activity was already going on and had been since 2010. It was only public groundswell pressure which forced BLM and Fort Carson to turn a project into a formal proposal which is supposedly open to change or cancellation. People weren't buying it. (see my later comment)
Only about 15 or so got to a microphone. It was impossible to get to all those who raised their hands.There were a couple of uncritical supporters of the Army and the BLM. And many of those with critical comments or questions prefaced their remarks with expressions of military support, sometimes distinguishing between troops and brass.
The combination of actual comments and crowd murmerirng and grumbling (the buzz) was overwhelmingly critical. Several rounds of applause punctuated that.
There were several very pointed complaints: "Some idiot (or a similar word) from Kentucky flew a helicopter right over my house in the middle of the night and sent a beam of light right through my sun light ceiling" , one woman complained. ( A unit from Fort Campbell Kentucky was indeed one of the six Army units from outside Fort Carson to train there.)
Another said " a helicopter landed right in the middle of my pasture and sat there for a while far distant from any landing zone."
Captain Mathews the main Fort Carson presenter made several blunt comments. In response to a question about flight routes to and from the landing zones he stated that it was important to take as short a route as possible to save money because" it costs about $25,000 per hour in total every time we go on a helicopter training mission" (we have that on tape) Some clarification would seem to in order.
In response to another question about liability he made it clear that the Army did not have to clean up after any mishaps which might occur. "At that point it becomes a matter for local jurisdictions."
Another point of clarification was the Army's admission that while Fort Carson and the BLM were doing the agreement it applied to numerous other users of the landing zones, The list included other Army helicopter units (6 and counting) numerous National Guard units, Air Force, Marine and Navy helicopters too.
When the question was asked about what they did to record and respond to complaints they had already received the answer was clear. Fort Carson could only respond to complaints about Fort Carson helicopters. The other users needed to be respond to complaints relating to their helicopters. Wow! seemed to be the group response.
After Keith Burger of BLM kept stating how open they had been to public input from the very start of this in 2010 I wanted to tell the crowd about numerous Freedom of Information Requests I had made since 2010 with no response or in some cases official denials.