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Regional Interests

Wyden, Merkley seek public meeting in Oregon over Air Force proposal in Owyhee

Two F-15E Strike Eagles perform a low-level training mission over the Sawtooth Mountain Range in Idaho.
Two F-15E Strike Eagles perform a low-level training mission over the Sawtooth Mountain Range in Idaho.

Oregon’s U.S. senators this week urged the Department of Defense to hold a public meeting in Malheur County over a proposal to allow low-altitude flights in the Owyhee region.

The Air Force wants to expand its low-altitude training range, bringing ultra-fast flights as low as 100 feet off the ground into adjoining areas in Oregon and Nevada — but the branch hasn’t held a public hearing in the Beaver State.

Instead, they held two hearings in Idaho where low-altitude flights are already allowed, one on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation (which straddles the Nevada-Idaho border) and another virtually.

Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley in a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III called the decision to not hold public hearings in Oregon hasty.

“While we support the U.S. military and recognize the importance of training capacity, pursuing this path of operation without giving the public the opportunity to participate in the process or raise questions and voice concerns about these plans is shortsighted,” the senators wrote.

OPB has reached out to the offices of Wyden and Merkley for further comment.

The Owyhee region is a vast expanse of rugged mountains and spellbinding geology. It’s home to Indigenous cultural sites, greater sage grouse, ranching and recreation.

Since the 1940s, the Mountain Home Air Force Base south of Boise has used airspace over the region — which encompasses the Oregon-Nevada-Idaho tri-state area as well as the Fort McDermitt and Duck Valley Indian reservations — to train pilots on a variety of combat maneuvers.

The base’s airspace is divided into six sections. Currently, the Air Force can only conduct low-altitude training in two of them, called Owyhee North and Jarbidge North.

Subsonic flights (slower than the speed of sound) can go as low as 100 feet above the ground and supersonic flights (faster than the speed of sound) as low as 5,000 feet above the ground in those sections.

The proposal before the public would allow those low-altitude flights into the remaining four sections of the airspace in Oregon and Nevada. The Air Force acknowledges in its draft environmental impact statement that the plan would increase noise, sonic booms and emissions in the region.

The Air Force has already extended the public comment period until Sept. 22 and is accepting comments by mail and online. Sens. Wyden and Merkley requested an additional 30 days for comment along with a public meeting in Malheur County.

First Lieutenant Daniel S. Barnhorst at the Mountain Home Air Force Base said in an email to OPB that no public hearing was scheduled in Oregon due to low attendance at a November 2019 meeting in McDermitt, Nevada — just across the Oregon state line — during the public scoping process.

“[I]t was the most central location for people from both states who live within the airspace to be able to attend,” Barnhorst wrote. “Because of the low attendance in 2019 there was no follow-up public hearing scheduled for that location.”

He added that the base has alerted Air Force officials of the senators’ request for a public hearing in Oregon and is awaiting a response.

Correction: This story has been updated to indicate a public hearing was held within the borders of Nevada. OPB regrets the error.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting