Montana Senators Fight Powder River Expansion


Montana’s U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester this week urged the Air Force not to expand training airspace for North and South Dakota Air Force Bases, known as the Powder River Training Complex, into large areas of southeastern Montana.  The Senators said such an expansion would disrupt ranching and farming and threaten commercial and private aviation jobs in the area.  

“The proposed Powder River expansion would put Montana jobs in jeopardy at a time when we need folks working more than ever.  Instead, we’re asking the Air Force to work with us to make use of airspace we already have in Montana in a way that will support jobs and offer even better training by incorporating F-15 fighters at MANG,” Baucus said. “Training airspace is critical to our national security.  But the proposed Powder River expansion just doesn’t make sense.  It’s no good for Montana, and it’s not our only option.  We are committed to making sure Montanans’ voices are heard, and we’ll keep fighting the Powder River expansion while working with the Air Force to use Montana airspace in a way that supports Montana jobs and improves national security.”

“There’s no doubt the Air Force needs space to train and to continue keeping America secure, but since there are other options on the table, I can’t support an expansion of training space into Montana that could cost us jobs and business,” Tester said.  “We’re going to keep working with the Air Force to find a solution that won’t disrupt the businesses and livelihoods of farms, ranches and communities in southeast Montana.”

“Expanding Powder River into more of southeastern Montana would disturb livestock and threaten the ranching way of life here,” said Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund. “R-CALF is grateful to Senators Baucus and Tester for standing up for Montana ranchers and all of the folks in southeastern Montana and saying no to the Powder River expansion.”

The existing Powder River training airspace covers 8,200 square nautical miles in South Dakota, Wyoming and a small portion of southeastern Montana.  Approximately 50-60 percent of the Air Force’s proposed expansion is over Montana.  While a recent draft Environmental Impact Statement  produced by the Air Forced describes this area as “primarily rural and uninhabited in character,” it would in fact include the towns of Colstrip, Hardin and Baker, along with the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indian reservations.

The Powder River Training area is used for training bombers from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. The negative effects of expanding the training exercises would, however, fall on Montana ranchers, farmers and residents in the area.  Baucus and Tester outlined these harmful effects and reiterated their strong opposition to the expansion in a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz yesterday. 

Baucus and Tester cited the potential disruption of commercial and private aviation that could costs jobs that generate $3.8 million in economic activity. The senators also noted the bombers used in these training exercises fly fast enough to break the sound barrier and regularly reach noise levels that cause disruption to residents, livestock and wildlife in the area.  Baucus and Tester also highlighted other negative consequences of expanding the training area, including: fire hazards from Air Force training exercise flares, the disruption of Montana emergency medical flights, and potential damage to the Little Big Horn National Battlefield.

The Senators also urged the Air Force to consider using the F-15 aircraft stationed at Great Falls to improve the air-to-air training scenarios  available to the Air Force bomber fleet. Baucus and Tester suggested that the Air Force utilize other airspace currently available in Montana, such as the Hays Military Operations Area in north-central Montana.  Hays is larger than Powder River and could provide realistic training scenarios when combined with exercises for the F-15 fighters at the Montana Air National Guard (MANG) Station in Great Falls.  In November, Baucus, Tester and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer pressed Secretary Donley and General Schwartz for answers on the proposed change from an F-15 to a C-27J flying mission for MANG in Great Falls.  That announcement is available here.

Baucus and Tester have been fighting for years to protect Southeastern Montana from the Powder River expansion.  The Senators sent a letter to the Air Force in 2008 and met with Secretary Donley and General Schwartz in Great Falls to express their opposition that same year.  The Montana Department of Transportation has also joined Baucus and Tester in opposing the expansion.

 Source: Offices of Senator Max Baucus and Jon Tester

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