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Army plan for helicopter training in Cascades draws fire from recreation industry

An airman jumps out of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter during an exercise with soldiers from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at American Lake on JBLM. The military is looking for new places for its helicopter units to train in Washington state.
An airman jumps out of an MH-47 Chinook helicopter during an exercise with soldiers from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at American Lake on JBLM. The military is looking for new places for its helicopter units to train in Washington state.

Several dozen small businesses have joined a coalition of environmental groups in protesting an Army proposal that would allow JBLM helicopter training in the North Cascades and other public lands in Washington.

The businesses are mostly recreation-oriented companies that cater to people seeking mountain adventures. Their owners worry that Army flights would drive away tourists who fill hotels and campgrounds in resort communities.

“Increased Army training will negatively impact the beauty and ‘wild’ feeling that people seek out in the North Cascades and other wilderness areas. This will lead to a decrease in visitors and tourists,” said Lance Reif, owner of a rafting business called Wildwater Rivers Guides near Leavenworth. “My business needs tourism to survive.”

Reif and about 30 business owners signed a letter coordinated by Washington Wild, a nonprofit that advocates for wilderness areas in the state. Previously, Washington Wild orchestrated an appeal from about 25 environmental groups raising questions about a plan that would allow Army helicopters to touch down at high elevations at designated spots in national forests.

The new group includes a brewery, hotels and real estate agents.

The new letter made it to the Army in time for this week’s closing of a four-month initial public comment period on the proposal. The Army now is evaluating the feedback and preparing a more detailed environmental analysis.

The Army wants to expand the number of locations where helicopters can practice high-altitude training while also opening more of the state to regular flights.

The number of Army aircraft — mostly helicopters — almost tripled at Joint Base Lewis-McChord between 2005 and 2013, a period in which the base gained a Special Operations aviation battalion and a large brigade composed mostly of Apache attack helicopters.

JBLM now has about 140 helicopters whose crews must compete for training opportunities at the base south of Tacoma and at the Yakima Training Center.

The Army in July published a draft environmental study that indicated the military could save money by using the additional helicopter training areas because it would reduce the need for crews to fly to distant high-altitude military ranges in Colorado.

The Army proposal would designate several sites for mountain training in forests between Wenatchee and the Canadian border. It would use additional helicopter ranges in southwest Washington between Aberdeen and Longview.

The first draft of the environmental assessment suggests flights could occur 24 hours a day any time of year except federal holidays.

Washington Wild and its supporters raised questions about specific proposed landing areas in the mountains, some of which they say would touch on forest trails.

“It appears that little or no thought has been put forward with respect to avoiding recreational impacts by the current proposal,” said Gus Bekker, a Wenatchee resident who participates in a back-country ski club, in a written statement released by Washington Wild.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646

adam.ashton@thenewstribune.com

@TNTMilitary

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