Conservation, Recreation and Wildlife Groups Join Local Residents in Concern about Army Proposal

Conservation, Recreation and Wildlife Groups Join Local Residents in Concern about Army Proposal

Conservation Northwest / Jul 30, 2015 /

Combat helicopter training areas in North Cascades and southwest Washington pose impacts to wilderness areas, Pacific Crest Trail and local economies

JOINT BASE LEWIS MCCHORD, WA – Today, 26 conservation, recreation and wildlife organizations from around the state weighed in on a proposal put forward by the Army to shift existing training activities to four new helicopter training areas in the North Cascades backcountry on the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest and in southwest Washington on mostly state forest lands and on the doorstep of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Their letter identified a number of potential impacts from the proposal that the Army will need to address. The issues included violating the federal Wilderness Act, locating proposed landing helicopter landing sites directly on existing recreation trails, failing to address impacts to endangered wildlife and assessing or mitigating impacts to local residents and the economic viability of local communities closest to the training areas.

“As Americans I think we can all agree that we want our military to be ready to defend our country when the time comes,” said Tom Uniack, Conservation Director for Washington Wild. “We can and should achieve that goal without threatening the significant investments in conservation recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat that have been made over the past several decades.”

The letter called for the Army to remove portions of the Alpine Lakes, Henry M. Jackson, Glacier Peak and Lake Chelan–Sawtooth Wilderness Areas from the proposed North Cascades Training Area including one of the helicopter landing sites located within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness boundary. Section 4(C) of The Wilderness Act of 1964 clearly states that in a Wilderness area there will be, “no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft…”

The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (OWNF) is well known and prized by locals and visitors alike for its diverse and myriad recreational opportunities. The forest boasts more than 2,000 miles of recreation trails, more than 20 developed campgrounds and scores of recreational rental cabins. The OWNF offers a range of world class and family oriented recreational opportunities to hunt, fish, camp, hike, mountain bike, paddle, horsepack, climb, ski, watch wildlife, take nature photographs and a host of other activities. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the Forest receives 2,130,800 visits each year roughly split in half between day and overnight use.

“It appears that little or no though has been put forward with respect to avoiding recreational impacts by the current proposal,” said Gus Bekker, a Wenatchee resident who represents El Sendero NCW, a backcountry ski and snowshoe club. “For example of the seven proposed helicopter landing sites in the North Cascades, four were actually located directly on top of established Forest Service recreation trails.”

Anchored by significant blocks of public lands, the North Cascades and Southwest Washington serve as population and habitat strongholds for a number of endangered and threatened species, including the salmon, steelhead and bull trout, northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet, Canada lynx, gray wolf, and grizzly bear.

“Scientists have demonstrated that endangered grizzly bears, wolverine, and spotted owls are greatly affected by noise and activity, especially during breeding periods,” said Dave Werntz, Director of Science and Conservation for Conservation Northwest. “Loud helicopters flying at low elevations and landing in our national forests and wilderness areas could render prime habitat inhospitable, and should be avoided.”

The comment letter also called on the Army to analyze the social and economic impact to local residents and communities. Noise and unpredictability of when training exercises will occur or where helicopters will be flying threaten the quality of life of rural residents that live near the North Cascades proposed training area. Additionally, impacts to recreational opportunities on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest threaten to disrupt the economic benefit to local communities from tourism.

“We’re concerned that outfitters like ourselves would lose business. We have a real tourism-based economy in the Methow, and I think those of us who live here, live here for the same reasons that people come to visit us – everyone loves our backcountry. People from the city call it ‘iconic,” said Lorah Super, an outfitter and guide who lives just outside the small town of Methow and is a member of the Methow Valley Citizen’s Council. “’My quality of life and my livelihood are inherently connected to the peaks, ridges and streams that I consider my backyard.”

The Army scoping document laid out an ambitious and unrealistic approval schedule under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that would take just four months from initiation to final approval. A normal public process with controversial issues such as this would take at least 8 months to a year to complete. The letter called for the Army to slow down and ensure that each of these issues is thoroughly analyzed before submitting a draft Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement.