TACOMA – The U.S. Army is making another stab at establishing off-base helicopter training areas, including one mountain training area, but is staying away from Okanogan County this time.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s aviation division within the Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security proposes to establish three off-base helicopter training areas and one mountain training area. The U.S. Army is the lead federal agency for the proposed action.
The areas are along the southern portion of the state, with the mountain area proposed for Yakima County.
The Okanogan mountain training area was considered but eliminated, according to an environmental assessment released in December 2019.
Initial scoping efforts were conducted in 2015 and included the Okanogan County area. More than 2,000 comments were received, with public concerns largely related to helicopter flights in and around federally designated wilderness areas, plus recreation, noise and socioeconomic impacts to the Okanogan mountain training area region.
“The alternative proposed that the training areas would be available for use day and night, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with the exception of federal holidays,” the document said of the Okanogan area.
In July 2015, the Army proposed western Okanogan County, including parts of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, for the mountainous training area.
“It is vitally important to conduct high-altitude mountain environmental training in order to prepare Army air crews,” the 2015 scoping document said. “This training is critical to save the lives of aviators and the soldiers they transport.”
The need for such well-prepared brigades to conduct operations in Afghanistan led Army command to prioritize the development of standardized training for high-altitude, mountainous conditions up to 14,000 feet, the Army said.
“High altitudes and mountainous terrain pose several challenges to Army helicopter pilots,” the 2015 document said. “High altitudes are associated with high wind, high-density altitude, turbulence and atmospheric instability,” all of which affect engine performance and aircraft handling characteristics.
Military operations areas and off-base military training routes already exist within the proposed training areas. Parts of Okanogan County have been within military operations areas for several decades.
The Army also proposed using several local airports for possible refueling. They included Dorothy Scott Airport in Oroville, Anderson Field in Brewster, Lake Chelan Airport in Chelan, Lost River Resort Airport in Mazama, Methow Valley State Airport in Winthrop, Okanogan Legion Airport, Omak Municipal Airport, Tonasket Municipal Airport, Twisp Municipal Airport, Cashmere-Dryden Airport, Lake Wenatchee State Airport at Leavenworth, Pangborn Memorial Airport in East Wenatchee and Waterville Airport.
But that proposal now has been abandoned in favor of sites in Grays Harbor, Pacific, Wahkiakum, Lewis, Cowlitz and Yakima counties.
The 2019 environmental assessment document looked at possible impacts on several animal and plant species, including the lynx, wolverine, fisher, marbled murrelet, spotted owl, gray wolf, white-tailed deer, several species of fish, other birds and plants.
According to the Army, the environmental assessment carries with it a draft finding of no significant impact.
A public comment period began Jan. 8 and runs until Feb. 7. An open house is planned from 4-6 p.m. Jan. 14 at 210 Railroad Ave., Centralia.
Comments may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org or Department of the Army, Directorate of Public Works, attention Environmental Division (NEPA), 2012 Liggett Ave., Box 339500 MS 17, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA 98433-9500.