MOUNTAIN HOME, Idaho — The United States Air Force wants to lower the altitude jets can fly in their air space southwest of Mountain Home, this 10,000 square-mile air space encompasses six different areas of operation in three different states.
The Air Force released a draft environmental impact statement in July and the public has until September 22 to voice their opinion on the proposal.
The map above shows the airspace and in the blue areas of Idaho the minimal altitude is 100-feet off the ground, the Air Force wants to change the yellow areas in Oregon and Nevada to 100-feet from the current altitude of 3,000.
The plan also calls for lowering the supersonic altitude for jets from 10,000 in Idaho to 5,000 feet and in the other areas from 30,000 to 5,000 feet.
"This ability to train realistically in a low altitude regime is the difference between mission effectiveness and not, surviving or not against some of the high-end threats we might be facing," said Col. Luke Teel of the United States Air Force.
The National Defense Strategy cites rebuilding military readiness citing China and Russia as long-term strategic competition and one way for the Air Force to improve their fighting capabilities is by practicing low altitude flying as they do during Gunfighter Flag when units come from all over the country for a force on force training battle.
"In today’s environment with the increased proliferation and advanced nature of the surface to air threats we need to be able to train in a low altitude environment," said Col. Teel.
The Owyhee Rangeland is a pretty desolate place and the air space includes two small Native American reservations, but no real towns.
Conservationists opposed to the plan worry that jets roaring 100 feet off the ground will ruin the solitude of this area that includes several wild and scenic rivers, including the Owyhee River and its different forks.
"There are some special rivers here and they are designated because they have what is called outstandingly remarkable values that could be the fishery, that could be the geology, and that can be the solitude you find when you recreate," said Stephen Pfeiffer of Idaho Rivers United. "Most of these rivers have all of those values so what the Air Force plan is proposing from jets flying very low and sonic booms, that runs counter to what wild and scenic rivers are managed for."
Last week we took an Eco Flight with Idaho Rivers United and that's where we ran into Tim Davis who grew up in Adrian, Oregon and after spending so much time in the Owyhees he went on to start a non-profit called Friends of the Owyhee. Davis worries about noise to wildlife, ranchers and their cattle and people recreating.
"The Boise metro area is growing rapidly more and more people are exploring the Owyhees," said Davis. "We are all enjoying public lands, but we also go out there to find solitude it is one of the last large areas left in the United States more or less unprotected, but we can go out and find true solitude in a desert landscape."
The Owyhee Rangeland is home to several species of animals from antelope, to mule deer and bighorn sheep, but the sage grouse is the big one that contributes to a healthy sagebrush ecosystem and this area has the second-highest concentration of sage grouse behind an area in Wyoming.
According to a study by the United States Geological Survey, the sage grouse population continues to dwindle since 2002 their overall population has dropped by 40 percent.
If the sage grouse gets put on the endangered species list that would bring federal protections to the Owyhee Rangeland which would affect everybody involved in this story from recreators, ranchers and the Air Force so Idaho Rivers United would like to see more research go into the draft EIS.
"The impacts of noise on wildlife species are taken from very minimal scientific literature," said Pfeiffer. "So I think a lot of these impacts have to be studied further before we can be certain what impact does a jet roaring 100 feet off the ground have on sage grouse."
But the Air Force says lowering the floor doesn't mean that jets will be flying that frequently in the air space, but it would give them more uniformity so when they fly from Idaho to Oregon the jets wouldn't have to gain altitude to comply with the boundaries.
"Mountain Home Air Force base and the gunfighters we have great relationships with our community," said Col. Teel. "We want to be great stewards of this air space and great neighbors to our community."
Flying at low altitudes will help pilots train to fight, the Air Force would use the terrain for training and radar masking to prepare them for real-world scenarios.
"It’s not all of our mission, it’s only about seven percent low altitude according to the EIS," said Col. Teel. "But it is a critical capability that we need to be proficient at."