Action Alert: Big Impacts to Big Game Habitat at Stake

The following is a letter submitted by members of NM BHA to the Cibola National regarding a proposal to permit intensive military operations in otherwise relatively undisturbed backcountry habitat.  To help NM BHA 

February 5, 2014

Ms. Cheryl Prewitt

Cibola National Forest

U.S. Forest Service

2113 Osuna Rd., NE, Ste. A

Albuquerque, NM 87113

Re: Military Training Exercises Project – Comments submitted by E-mail

Dear Ms. Prewitt:

I am submitting my comments in response to the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) Environmental Assessment (EA) for the proposed military training exercises project. I have major concerns about the environmental impacts proposed in the EA, especially in the Magdalena Ranger District. My comments identify deficiencies with the analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and includes recommendations that should be incorporated in the final decision. I also request three additional alternatives be analyzed by the USAF and USFS.

In 1988, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) signed a Master Agreement which outlined the policies and processes associated with the military using national forest lands for military activities. This Master Agreement is catalogued as Forest Service Manual 1533.1.

The Master Agreement states that prior to initiating any NEPA analysis for a proposed military project on Forest Service (USFS) lands, the military will prepare an assessment which analyzes whether DOD lands are or are not suitable and available for the project[1]. This assessment must be delivered to the appropriate Forest Supervisor[2]. Further, and most importantly, USFS lands may not be considered for military projects unless there are no suitable and available DOD lands[3].

On several occasions since the initiation of this Environmental Assessment, others who I am coordinating with, attempted to obtain the assessment that was done for this particular project. The assessment should provide a detailed assessment on wither DOI military lands were evaluated and indicate if DOI lands were or were not available or suitable.  The Cibola USFS office has stated that it cannot release military documents. After two separate Freedom of Information Act requests, neither the Cibola NF nor the military has produced any document(s) that resemble an assessment as required by Forest Service Manual 1533.1. Therefore I conclude that the military assessment has not been done for this project.

The USFS and DOD must adhere to the Master Agreement and complete an assessment showing that DOD lands are available or unavailable for this training exercises.This assessment is a critical first step, because it answers the threshold question: whether a special use permit to conduct military trainings on the Cibola National Forest is necessary. The NEPA process for a permit on USFS land should never have begun without this documentation and I therefore request that this NEPA process halt until an assessment is produced.

2. The U.S. Forest Service should have done more to inform the public about this project and had held more public meetings in other towns & cities.

The final decision may approve a special use permit for the military to conduct special operations training across the Cibola National Forest (NF) for up to twenty years, and possibly longer.[4] I appreciate the Cibola National Forest giving the public an additional opportunity to provide comments for this EA. The impacts from these trainings exercises appear to be severe and disruptive especially for the local residents in the Bear Mountain area of the Magdalena Ranger District. Please review this video produced by the residents in Madalena and surrounding area.

At the Nov. 22, 2013 the Magdalena Ranger District meeting, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and military representatives did not provided adequate or correct information on the military activities that would be conducted. Often the military stated the EA did not accurately reflect what would be occurring on the ground. The military stated verbally numerous times that the EA was incorrect. The military representatives at the Nov. 22.2013 stated several times that on the ground impacts would be less than what was stated in the EA. Neither the military nor the Forest Service provided any follow up information to rectify the discrepancies identified at the Magdalena meeting.

Prior to the Nov. 22,2013 Magdalena meeting, the public had incomplete information to review and respond to. The information was limited to Volume I, a 340 page EA, which did not include the 7 page FONSI. Volume II, 286 pages of appendices, was not available. There were no hard copies or CD’s available for public review. The public was only given 30 days to respond and not all the information was available.

Generally, environmental assessments (EA’s) are not this long. From my experience a federal agency often provides a minimum of 45 days to review and comment on long detailed EA’s and if the level of analysis is as detailed and as this EA, a 90 and 120 days comment should have been given for the 2nd comment period. Because of the complexity of this project, I recommend that the Forrest Service request that the Military conduct a through Environmental Impact Study (EIS).

The USFS National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Manual, as well as Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) guidelines, requires federal agencies to consider all reasonable alternatives when conducting NEPA analyses.[5] If many alternatives are present, agencies may choose to analyze a reasonable range of alternatives as long as the range covers the spectrum of alternatives.[6] USFS guidance adds that the Forest Service should “ensure the range of alternatives does not prematurely foreclose options that might protect restore and enhance the environment” (Forest Service Handbook 1909.15-2012-3 (§14)). Further, it directs the agency to address unresolved conflicts in its alternatives development, and to consider alternatives even if they are outside the agency’s jurisdiction (Id.).

The USAF and USFS analyzed three alternatives in the EA: a no action alternative where no military training would occur in the Cibola NF, Alternative 1 where the military would continue their current training programs, and Alternative 2 which is both the proposed action and the preferred alternative and involves a significant increase in students and classes in the Magdalena Ranger District. I do not believe this is a reasonable range of alternatives. The USAF and USFS did not consider several obvious reasonable alternatives in this EA, leaving the analysis incomplete.

Other than the proposed action/preferred alternative, the USAF and USFS developed only two alternatives and neither would meet the USAF’s purpose and need statement, which reads in part:

…the proposed increase in numbers of students and classes in Pararescuemen/Combat Rescue Officer School is needed to achieve mission readiness.

EA at 1-2. Specifically, two of the three alternatives would not allow for the USAF to increase the number of students and classes. This means the USAF and USFS analyzed only one alternative – the propose action/preferred alternative – that would fulfill the purpose and need statement thereby making it the only action alternative that would meet the stated need for the project. The USAF and USFS must analyze a range of reasonable alternatives that would enable the USAF to meet the purpose and need of expanding its operations at locations that provide efficient and effective training on variable terrain and landscaping sites. Indeed, the identification and evaluation of alternative ways of meeting the purpose and need of the proposed action is the heart of the NEPA analysis.

I suggest two alternatives that would enable the USAF to provide for their proposed increase in the number of students. I also offer a third alternative that would reduce the number of students and classes. These alternatives meet the CEQ’s definition for a reasonable alternative. That is, in terms of meeting the purpose and need, these alternatives are practical or feasible from the technical and economic standpoint and using common sense.[7]

Regarding the selection of location alternatives, the USAF developed three selection standards: two cost related standards and a standard related to terrain and landscapes. The USAF identified locations in five states: Colorado, Arizona, California, North Carolina, and New Mexico. Then, the USAF applied the three selection standards to the locations in the five different states (Table 2-1). Using this approach, the USAF determined that the locations in New Mexico scored the best. This approach for selecting location alternatives is not conducive to developing a range of reasonable alternatives. Specifically, only the New Mexico locations were capable of meeting the two cost-related selection standards, which are two out of the three criteria. The locations in the other four states were deemed too expensive. In these times of fiscal austerity, we understand the USAF’s emphasis on cost savings when identifying locations. Our concern rests not with using cost as a selection standard but with the fact that the locations in New Mexico were clearly the obvious choice based on the three selection standards that were used. Given this, why were additional locations within New Mexico not considered? It seems only reasonable that the USAF would have attempted to analyze more than one location scenario in New Mexico in addition to the currently used location given that New Mexico was the only state capable of being selected. I therefore request that the USAF and USFS consider a range of alternatives within New Mexico. To this end, two of the alternatives we offer below are for alternative locations, which the USAF and USFS should consider.

    a.The EA must consider an alternative that locates the proposed trainings on military lands
    b.The USAF and USFS must consider an alternative that minimizes impacts on the Scott Mesa and Goat Springs Inventoried Roadless Areas.

The mission of the USFS is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations." The USFS’s purpose is grounded in conserving the natural resources of our forests and grasslands for the people. Our nation’s forests and grasslands are the public’s lands. Indeed, the leading use of our national forests is recreation. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense (DOD) has its own lands. The DOD administers 19 million acres in military bases, training ranges, and more, making it the fifth largest land manager in the country. In New Mexico alone, the DOD administers 3,395,090 acres of land.[8] Unlike our national forests, DOD lands are not available for general public access and use, which is understandable. DOD land holdings were established in order to provide for the needs of our military, such as training exercises; precisely the activities involved with this project.

Therefore I request that the USAF and USFS analyze as per USFS Manual 1533.1, an alternative that does not involve the use of our nation’s public forest land for these training activities. The intense level of training activities proposed in the EA is incompatible with national forest land. These proposed training activities will make these lands unusable and unsuitable for public use and, in some places, will permanently degrade natural resources (i.e., soils, vegetation cover, and habitat). DOD land holdings were created in order to provide for the needs of our military. As such, it only makes sense that the USAF and USFS consider an alternative to conduct military trainings on military lands.

Specifically, there are over 2.3 million acres of land among Kirtland Air Force Base (AFB), Holloman AFB, and White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico. Fort Bliss, although in Texas, is adjacent to the WSMR and adds another 1.12 million acres. Cannon AFB and the Melrose Air Force Range add over 73,000 acres. Combined, this is nearly 5,500 square miles of land - nearly the size of Connecticut. Certainly there must be a few hundred acres among these 3.5 million acres of military lands that would offer a reasonable alternative to the Cibola NF. Specifically, the WSMR in particular should offer plenty of options for pursuing military trainings. At 3,200 square miles, the WSMR is the largest military installation in the United States. The WSMR is close to the Magdalena and Mountainair Ranger Districts so it should not cost much more than the proposed action in terms of transportation and relocation costs, two of three criteria used to decide on the location of the trainings. In fact, this alternative might cost less.

Based on the photos in the EA’s archeological survey, topographic maps provided in the EA, and personal knowledge of the area, the terrain that would be used for the helicopter maneuvers and the ground trainings in the Magdalena Ranger District’s Bear Mountains is, for the most part, relatively flat. The vegetation and landscaping associated with the helicopter maneuvers is sparse, low grassland with widely scattered low shrubs. The vegetation and landscaping associated with the field trainings appears to be both forested and low grassland with scattered low shrubs. In other words, there appears to be nothing particularly unique about the terrain and landscaping found in this area of the Cibola NF. This type of terrain and landscaping should be easy to find elsewhere. It seems plausible that these general conditions could be found in the 3,200 square mile WSMR.

The EA provides no compelling rationale regarding why an alternative on military lands was not analyzed. Indeed, conducting these trainings solely over land already managed by, and under the jurisdiction of the military would completely resolve all conflicts between the military and other forest users. Therefore request that the USAF and USFS analyze an alternative that utilizes DOD lands for these training exercises. This would be a reasonable alternative for responding to the USAF’s purpose and need and would address unresolved conflict on USFS land.

I recognize that the existing permit expires in January 2014 and that this may not offer enough time for the USAF and USFS to identify, analyze, and relocate its training operations on military lands before the existing permit expires. Inter- and intra-agency complications may impede or delay the formulation and implementation of such an alternative. With this in mind, the USAF and USFS should be flexible in how they develop the military lands alternative. To this end, the USAF and USFS could, for example, design an alternative that enables the USFS to issue a 1 or 2 -year permit for the proposed training activities with the requirement that all training operations would be relocated to military lands over the next 2 years.

Undeveloped natural lands provide numerous ecological benefits. They contribute to biodiversity, enhance ecosystem representation, and facilitate connectivity (Loucks et al, 2003; USDA 2000; Crist and Wilmer, 2002; Strittholt and Dellasala, 2001; DeVelice and Martin, 2001), and provide high quality or undisturbed water, soil and air (Anderson et al, 2012; Dellasalla et al, 2011).

USFS roadless lands, in particular, are heralded for the conservation values they provide. These are described at length in the preamble of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule (RACR)[9] as well as in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the RACR[10], and include: high quality or undisturbed soil, water, and air; sources of public drinking water; diversity of plant and animal communities; habitat for threatened, endangered, proposed, candidate, and sensitive species and for those species dependent on large, undisturbed areas of land; primitive, semi-primitive non- motorized, and semi-primitive motorized classes of dispersed recreation; reference landscapes; natural appearing landscapes with high scenic quality; traditional cultural properties and sacred sites; and other locally identified unique characteristics (e.g., include uncommon geological formations, unique wetland complexes, exceptional hunting and fishing opportunities).

In addition to the description of the value of roadless lands to the conservation of biodiversity in the FEIS, numerous articles in the scientific literature recognize the contribution of roadless and undeveloped lands for biodiversity, connectivity, and conservation reserve networks. For example, Loucks et al (2003) examined the potential contributions of roadless areas to the conservation of biodiversity, and found that more than 25% of Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs) are located in globally or regionally outstanding ecoregions and that 77% of IRAs have the potential to conserve threatened, endangered, or imperiled species. Arcese and Sinclari (1997) highlighted the contribution that IRAs could make toward building a representative network of conservation reserves in the United States, finding that protecting these areas as reserves would expand ecoregional representation, increase the area of reserves at lower elevations, and increase the number of areas large enough to provide refugia for species needing large tracts relatively undisturbed by people. Crist and Wilmer (2002) looked at the ecological value of roadless lands in the Northern Rockies and found that protection of national forest roadless areas, when added to existing federal conservation lands in the study area, would 1) increase the representation of virtually all land cover types on conservation lands at both the regional and ecosystem scales, some by more than 100%; 2) help protect rare, species-rich, and often-declining vegetation communities; and 3) connect conservation units to create bigger and more cohesive habitat “patches.”

Roadless lands also are responsible for higher quality water and watersheds. Anderson et al (2012) assessed the relationship of watershed condition and land management status and found a strong spatial association between watershed health and protective designations. Dellasalla et al (2011) found that undeveloped and roadless watersheds are important for supplying downstream users with high-quality drinking water, and developing these watersheds comes at significant costs associated with declining water quality and availability. The authors recommend a light-touch ecological footprint to sustain the many values that derive from roadless areas including healthy watersheds.  

Undeveloped areas on the Cibola NF contribute to the biological diversity and ecosystem integrity of the National Forest and surrounding areas. The Cibola ‘sky islands’ region of New Mexico is ecologically rich, hosting more species of birds and mammals than any other ecoregion in the Southwest, and is home to more than 200 rare plants and animals, of which more than 30 are listed as endangered or threatened by the federal or state governments (The Nature Conservancy, 2009). New Mexico Game and Fish, in its Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (New Mexico Game and Fish Department, 2006), identified 80 species of greatest conservation need (SGCN)[11] in the Arizona-New Mexico Mountains Ecoregion, ranking it the second out of six ecoregions in the state for SGCN (See Map 1).[12] Similarly, it identified 53 SGCN in the Rio Grande Watershed, which contains the Cibola NF’s four mountain districts, ranking it second out of eight watershed regions for SGCN.[13]

We are extremely concerned about the impacts that these training activities will have on the Scott Mesa and Goat Springs IRAs. I realize that the preferred alternative is proposing very little wheeled motorized vehicle use within the boundaries of these IRAs, and I realize that the helicopter landing and drop zones are proposed outside of the IRAs, but I remain concerned about the impacts that these activities will have on the roadless character. There is a tremendous amount of wheeled motorized travel and helicopter landing proposed directly adjacent to these IRAs. This is in addition to the tremendous amount of helicopter maneuvering proposed directly over these IRAs – sometimes just a few hundred feet above the ground – as well as the large amount of munitions – including smoke grenades, flares, surface to air missiles, and blank rounds – that will be fired during the field training exercises both adjacent to and within IRA boundaries. The sights (flares, smoke grenades, and low flying helicopters) and sounds, which are expected to travel deep into these roadless areas based on the EA’s impacts analysis, from these activities will certainly degrade the roadless character of these IRAs. The USAF and USFS did not analyze an alternative that would locate these trainings activities in a different area of the Cibola NF. Both action alternatives are limited to the areas where the trainings are currently happening. I recommend exploring options with the USAF that would help the USAF meet its stated purpose and need while also protecting the roadless character of the IRAs.

    c.The USAF and USFS did not consider a reduction in the numbers and levels of training exercises taking place within the forest
    IV.An EIS is required in order to adequately address potential impacts and the public controversy surrounding the issue
    a.The EA indicates the impacts are likely to be significant
        1.Unique characteristics
        2.The degree to which the effects on the quality of the human environment are likely to be highly controversial.
        3.The degree to which the action may establish a precedent for future actions with significant effects or represents a decision in principle about a future consideration.

The USAF and USFS did not consider a third, obvious reasonable alternative in this EA, leaving the analysis incomplete. The USAF and USFS did not consider a reduction in the numbers and levels of training exercises taking place within the forest. [14]

The range of alternatives presented in the EA would undoubtedly foreclose more environmentally protective options, and would not address unresolved conflicts. This is exacerbated by the Cibola NF’s upcoming Forest Plan Revision because it will affect alternatives development for that EIS, especially since the duration of this permit could last twenty years or more. Without analyzing the alternatives presented above, it is difficult to imagine this to be an adequate range of reasonable alternatives.

I believe that in this circumstance, an EIS is required because the EA demonstrates that impacts to the environment are likely to be significant, the EA is too long, and reasonable alternatives were not considered. Additionally, since 2004, this permit has been renewed only “by letter”[15] meaning in-depth environmental analysis has not occurred since 1988 when the permit was first issued, and the permit has technically been expired since 2003.

NEPA and subsequent guidance requires an EIS when an EA indicates a proposed action may have a significant effect on the environment.[16] When determining what qualifies as a “significant” impact, agencies must look at the following factors, among others, according to NEPA regulations and CEQ guidance (40 C.F.R. § 1508.27):

    4.The degree to which the proposed action affects public health or safety.

The USFS NEPA guidance is similar to the CEQ guidance, but also lists altering the character of an IRA as one example of a proposed action which would normally require the preparation of an EIS.[17] I believe the proposal meets the “significant” standard for all of these criteria.

The proposed area includes portions of two IRAs and the BLM Sierra Ladrones WSA, and may impact them through noise pollution, light pollution, falling debris, uncollected spent munitions canisters, shells, and other litter that is overlooked during clean up, and increased risk of fire, among other things. Wilderness-quality lands only remain so when they are left un-impacted by man’s activities. Allowing fly-overs, explosions, and drops around and within these IRAs undoubtedly removes the tranquility people seek when they use the forests for recreation, and impacts the wildlife which depends on quiet undisturbed areas.

The fly-over area includes private residences which are already negatively impacted by military training, and USAF and USFS are proposing to increase the frequency and intensity of the activities in the Magdalena Ranger District, making the proposed action controversial with landowners. That the area includes IRAs makes the proposal more controversial to sportsmen, equestrian trail riders and conservation minded individuals.

Further, as far as I can tell, these training activities have not received any NEPA analysis since the permit was originally issued nearly thirty years ago.[18] Conditions on the ground have changed since the permit was originally issued, including more people living near where these trainings occur, inventoried roadless areas being established, a new forest plan is being developed, and an exacerbated risk of fire has been exacerbated by drier conditions due to climate change. For these reasons, I believe renewing this permit warrants an EIS.

Finally, because of the risk to private residences as well as to the forest itself through fire, public health and safety could be affected.

The EA itself demonstrates that the effects of the proposed action are likely to be significant. It indicates there will be pyrotechnics, grenades, munitions, flares, and other firing devices. [19] As these will be present extremely close (and sometimes directly over) WSAs and IRAs, the impact could be extremely significant if a fire were to start.

On the east side of the Bear Mountains in the Magdalena Ranger District alone, three additional landing zones will be built, and 26,238 different events will take place every year, including takeoffs and landings, touch and go landings, flying in closed patterns, hovering, and dropping of personnel or equipment.[20] Another 9,390 helicopter related flight operations/events will occur annually in the Mt. Taylor Ranger District’s Zuni Mountain Unit and in the Mountainair Ranger District. The ground tracks of these activities are extensive, as shown in Figure 4-1. The area around the existing HLZ has been reduced to bare ground, and constructing the three additional HLZs will increase the area size of the affected area by a factor of 10.

Base camps to support land-based training also have significant impact. Even under current conditions, the earth is flattened and bare around existing base camps, and vegetation and wildlife habitat is damaged due to driving off-road to turn around and gather fallen objects. The EA proposes vehicle traffic on roads not designated on the USFS maps, and a significant increase in training activities. Increased activity and construction will only worsen the impacts which already exist.

Finally, the EA does not present baseline data of the kinds of impacts these activities have caused over the last few decades since the trainings started. It is difficult to understand how the USAF and USFS are gauging an “increase” in damage, or what “no change” would mean, since NEPA analysis has not occurred in over a decade. This alone presents a reason for completing an EIS.

Combined, these potential impacts have a high likelihood of being significant and warrant the creation of an EIS.         

    b.The EA is too long
    c.Reasonable alternatives were not analyzed

CEQ guidelines indicate that a typical EA should be in the ten to fifteen page range, and should be a concise document which briefly outlines the evidence and analysis needed to determine whether or not a full EIS is necessary.[21] The guidelines state that lengthy descriptions of collected data are not appropriate for an EA, and that in general, a lengthy EA indicates the need for an EIS.[22]

In this case, Volume I of the EA, which does not include appendices which add hundreds of pages to the document, is almost 350 pages and contains minute data and analysis. This would not qualify as a brief statement analyzing whether an EIS is appropriate; it is almost an entire EIS in itself, and indicates the USAF and USFS had enough information to create a full EIS (indeed, the USFS NEPA Manual suggests that 150-300 pages is an appropriate length for an EIS[23]).

Reasonable alternatives were left out of the EA. Adhering to NEPA’s requirement to consider all reasonable alternatives would create an even larger document, underscoring the need for a full EIS. This is an additional indication that the analysis within the EA is not complete.

    IV.The USAF and USFS did not take a “hard look” at the impacts

    a.USAF and USFS did not take a hard look at the impacts on Inventoried Roadless Areas(IRAs)
        a.USAF and USFS did not take a hard look at the direct and cumulative impacts from chronic noise exposure on terrestrial wildlife
        b.USAF and USFS did not take a hard look at the impacts on mountain lion
        c.The USAF and USFS must conduct NEPA jointly with the BLM to adequately analyze impacts to the Sierra Ladrones WSA
        V.The conclusions in the EA are arbitrary and capricious

The USAF and USFS are required to analyze the effects of each alternative on IRAs. The environmental analysis must “disclose that significant roadless areas will be affected and take the requisite ‘hard look’ at the environmental consequences of that fact,” including analyses of the plan’s effects on “water resources, soils, wildlife habitat, and recreation opportunities.”  Lands Council v. Martin, 529 F.3d 1219, 1230, 1232 n. 7 (9th Cir. 2008); Smith v. U.S. Forest Serv., 33 F.3d 1072, 1078 (9th Cir. 1994); Or. Natural Desert Ass’n v. Bureau of Land Mgmt., 531 F.3d 1114, 1137-38 (9th Cir. 2008).  “Roadless Area Characteristics” are “[r]esources or features that are often present in and characterize inventoried roadless areas, including:

(1) High quality or undisturbed soil, water, and air;

(2) Sources of public drinking water;

(3) Diversity of plant and animal communities;

(4) Habitat for threatened, endangered, proposed, candidate, and sensitive species and for those species dependent on large, undisturbed areas of land;

(5) Primitive, semi-primitive non-motorized and semi-primitive motorized classes of dispersed recreation;

(6) Reference landscapes;

(7) Natural appearing landscapes with high scenic quality;

(8) Traditional cultural properties and sacred sites; and

(9) Other locally identified unique characteristics.

36 C.F.R. § 294.11. These criteria should be used for determining the impacts a proposed project could have on roadless character. However, a major fault in the EA’s impacts analysis for IRAs is that none of the nine roadless characteristics listed in the Roadless Rule were analyzed.

The EA does not analyze the impacts that the proposed training activities will have on IRAs. While IRAs are mentioned in the EA, the closest thing to an analysis of the impacts is as follows:

Portions of PJ/CRO land navigation, tactics, and FTX training would continue to occur in the Scott Mesa and Goat Spring IRAs. PJ/CRO vehicle operation would continue to occur on established roads and trails unless necessary for an emergency. As shown on Figure 2-7, nearly all PJ/CRO vehicle operation would occur on roads on the periphery of or outside the IRAs, with only a short portion of one road in the IRA being used for 1-2 vehicles. Vehicles used by the 58 SOW would continue to be restricted to existing roads and would not travel off the road. No new roads or trails would be required for Air Force training. Activities associated with the Proposed Action would be consistent with the Roadless Area Conservation Final Rule.

EA at 4-114. This statement is not an analysis of the impacts on roadless areas. The field and helicopter trainings will likely have impacts on soil, the diversity of plant and animal communities, dispersed recreation both primitive, semi-primitive non-motorized and semi-primitive motorized classes of recreation, and natural appearing landscapes. The propagation of noises associated with the helicopter trainings alone will travel deep into both IRAs and convert the primitive nature and roadless character of these areas into something resembling an industrial area. Further, the noise will certainly have an impact on the diversity of animal communities as the local wildlife and big game species will likely avoid and abandon this area. According to Figure 4-1, the ground tracks associated with every HLZ and drop zone will cross deep into the IRA. Indeed, the EA acknowledges that those animals that are mobile, such as birds and mammals, would move out of the area. EA at 4-56. Soils in IRAs could be disturbed, too. Table 4-4 displays the estimated impact areas for each HLZ. It is unclear whether the larger impact zone crosses into the IRA boundary. If it does, Table 2-11 notes that “long-term or permanent loss of vegetation and erosion of loose fine-grained soil materials resulting in bare rock surface with little or no vegetation at HLZs X, Y, and Z as a result of helicopter activities.

I realize that some of the factors that define an area’s roadless character were analyzed in Chapters 3 and 4 in the EA, but these factors were not analyzed in terms of their association with IRAs. It is necessary to analyze these factors as they exist in IRAs so the agency and public understand the extent to which roadless character will be impacted. I respectfully request that the USAF and USFS properly analyze the nine roadless characteristics.

Arguably one of the most significant impacts from noise on wildlife relates to chronic exposure (Barber et al 2009, attached as Appendix A). Noise inhibits perception of sounds, an effect called masking. The helicopter related training exercise will occur for several hours each week. The duration of the permit could last up to twenty years and maybe more. While the EA did include an analysis of the direct impacts from noise on wildlife, the EA did not disclose the impacts on terrestrial species from the chronic exposure to anthropocentric noise. Acoustic ecologists are finding that the impacts from chronic noise exposure of wildlife can be detrimental in many ways and therefore are important to consider (Barber et al, 2009; Turina et al, 2011). I included both of these reports as Appendix A. Because the EA did not include an analysis of the impacts that chronic noise exposure will have on wildlife (especially affects on deer & elk populations), the EA failed to take a hard look at the direct and cumulative impacts.

As a large carnivore, mountain lions have a significant effect on the ecosystem in which they live. Their predatory behavior regulates the population of their prey and in turn the plant communities that their prey feeds on. The mountain lions’ most important prey species are various deer species. Other listed prey species of the mountain lion include mice, beavers, raccoons, hares, and big horn sheep. As with any predator at or near the top of the food chain, the mountain lion has a tremendous effect on the overall ecosystem they inhabit. The mountains of New Mexico are inhabited by mountain lions. Much of the Magdalena Ranger District, including the Bear Mountains, is considered important habitat for mountain lion (Menke 2008). For these reasons, it is important to analyze the potential impacts a project could have on this species. The EA did not include an analysis of the impacts that the proposed training activities will have on mountain lion. The USAF and USFS did not take a hard look at the impacts that the training exercises will have on mountain lion.

The project area includes the Sierra Ladrones WSA, which would be flown over by helicopters when entering and departing the training area (Draft EA, p. 3-90) and is within the ground tracks for HLZ X and 26 as well as the Cunningham DZ (Draft EA, Figure 4-1, p. 4-4). BLM Manual 6330 – Management of Wilderness Study Areas requires BLM to consider impacts to WSAs when conducting NEPA for activities outside of WSAs (Manual 6330, p. 43, attached as Appendix C) . If any activities may impact the WSA, BLM is required to follow Manual 6330 Section E for Evaluation of Proposed Actions, which includes public notification, documentation of the non-impairment standard, and review of wilderness characteristics, among other requirements.

The BLM was not included in the NEPA analysis for this project even though there could be impacts to the WSA. The USAF and USFS should conduct NEPA jointly with the BLM Socorro Field Office to adequately analyze impacts to the Sierra Ladrones WSA and comply with the agency’s guidance regarding management of Wilderness Study Areas.  Sportsmen are specifically concerned that these activities will impact the Desert Big Horn Sheep (BHS) population in the Sierra Ladrones WSA and diminish the WSA’s viability to sustain BHS.

Elk occur in the planning area where the proposed military training activities would occur. The EA concludes that elk would likely habituate to the noise environment from the HLZs in the Magdalena Ranger District thereby reducing the potential for long-term impact on the species. EA at 4-52, 4-55, 4-57, and 4-60. The USAF and USFS provide no rationale explaining why they believe elk will habituate to the noise from low flying helicopters. In fact, this conclusion is contrary to the Bunch (1993) study cited earlier in the EA 4-45. Bunch specifically studied, among other things, the impact of low flying helicopters on elk. While the findings indicated that other types of animals habituated to most disturbance factors in a short period of time, elk were one of several exceptions of species that did not habituate to low flying helicopters. The USAF and USFS’s conclusion that elk will habituate to the noise from low flying helicopters is arbitrary and capricious.


I appreciate that the USAF and the USFS allowed a second public comment period in regard to the EA for the proposed military training exercises. My intent in providing these comments is to work cooperatively with the agencies to ensure that the Cibola NF – as a public trust resource – is properly managed for the long-term public interest for the benefit of existing and future generations.

To summarize my comments, I believe the USAF and USFS should do more to inform the public about this project. I believe the EA did not include a range of reasonable alternatives, and prior correspondence by others, outlined three additional alternatives that request the USAF and USFS analyze. Specifically, I request that the USAF and USFS analyze an alternative that would locate these military trainings on military lands, an alternative that would better protect IRAs, and an alternative that would reduce the training activity on the Cibola NF. I believe that the impacts from the proposed activities could have significant environmental impacts, and that the development of an EIS is required. I also believe the NEPA analysis did not take a hard look at the environmental impacts from the proposed activities on forest resources. The NEPA process for a permit on USFS land should never have begun without this documentation and I therefore request that this NEPA process halt until an assessment is produced.


Anderson, H. Mike et al, 2012. Watershed Health in Wilderness, Roadless, and Roaded Areas of the National Forest System. The Wilderness Society, Washington DC.

Arcese and Sinclari, 1997. “The Role of Protected Areas as Ecological Baselines.” The Journal of Wildlife Management, Vol. 61, No. 3, pp. 587-602.

Barber, J. R., Crooks, K. R., Fristrup, K. M. 2009. The costs of chronic noise exposure for terrestrial organisms. Trends in Ecology and Evolution Vol. 25 No.3. pp. 180-189.

Crist and Wilmer, 2002. “Roadless Areas: The Missing Link in Conservation.” The Wilderness Society.

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Loucks et al, 2003. “USDA Forest Service Roadless Areas: Potential Biodiversity Conservation Reserves.” Conservation Ecology 7(2): 5. http://www.

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[1] “Prior to requesting use of National Forest System lands, the Department of Defense will determine if lands administered by the Department of Defense are available and suitable” (Master Agreement, Section II A).

[2] “Department of Defense will forward its analysis and determination as to the unsuitability or unavailability of DoD land to the affected Forest Supervisor” (Master Agreement, Section II A).

[3] “[T]raining activities on National Forest System lands will be authorized when compatible with other uses and in conformity with applicable forest plan(s), provided the Department of Defense determines and substantiates that lands under its administration are unsuitable or unavailable” (Master Agreement, Section I C (emphasis added)).

[4] The duration of the permit is unknown as this information is not provided in the EA.

[5] Forest Service Handbook 1909.15-2012-3 (§14)

[6] Draft Environmental Assessment Military Training within the Cibola National Forest Near Kirtland Airforce Base, NM, July 2013, pages 2-1 and 2-2.

[7] Council on Environmental Quality’s 40 Most Asked NEPA Questions. Available online here:

[8] Congressional Research Service. Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data. February 8, 2012. Available online at

[9] Federal Register.Vol. 66, No. 9. January 12, 2001. Pages 3245-3247.

[10] Final Environmental Impact Statement, Vol. 1, 3–3 to 3–7

[11] SGCN are species with small or declining populations or other characteristics that make them vulnerable, including those currently listed at the state or federal level.

[12] Of the 80 SGCN in the Arizona-New Mexico Ecoregion, there are 4 amphibians, 35 birds, 16 mammals, 15 molluscs, and 10 reptiles.

[13] Of the 53 SGCN in the Rio Grande Watershed, there are 2 crustaceans, 11 fish, 6 amphibians, 18 birds, 6 mammals, 7 molluscs, and 3 reptiles.

[14]Id. at 2-29.

[15] “By letter dated 18 June 2004, the USFS has authorized continued training on the Cibola NF pending re-issuance of a Special Use Permit” (Draft Environmental Assessment Military Training within the Cibola National Forest Near Kirtland Airforce Base, NM, July 2013, page 1-1).

[16] 42 USC § 4332 (1969).

[17] Forest Service Handbook 1909.15-2012-3 (§21.2 (2)).

[18] The USFS granted permission to continue these activities “by letter” in 2004 when the permit originally expired.

[19] Draft Environmental Assessment Military Training within the Cibola National Forest Near Kirtland Air Force Base, NM, July 2013, pages 2-9-2-11.

[20] Id. at 2-22 and 2-23.

[21] Council on Environmental Quality, NEPA’s Forty Most-Asked Questions, 1981, Question 36a (Environmental Assessments), available at

[22] Id.Question 36b (Lengthy EAs).

[23] Forest Service Handbook 1909.15-2012-3 (§23.1)

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