Air Force officers have changed proposed low-level bomber flight routes across Utah to avoid some wilderness and wildlife areas - but they won't keep the giant B-1Bs and B-52s away from the San Rafael Swell.
The changes are intended to increase the distance between the bombers and Desolation Canyon; areas designed by the Bureau of Land Management as habitat for wildlife sensitive to noise, such as bighorn sheep; and recreational facilities.The route is a swath nearly 8 1/2 miles wide. It extends from near Ouray, Uintah County, to the Utah Test and Training Range in Tooele County.
The big winner in the change was the Green River's Desolation Canyon, while the big loser was the San Rafael Swell, a desert region with several proposed wilderness areas.
The route apparently goes directly over the Wedge Overlook, one of the most scenic viewpoints in Utah, offering vistas into the San Rafael River's "Little Grand Canyon."
Throughout the route, flights of two B-1B bombers and two of B-52s would take place daily, with 15 percent between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. B-52s would fly between 400 and 600 feet above ground at 3,909 mph, and B-1Bs would fly at 500 feet, at 620 mph.
"While we were successful in addressing most of the issues raised regarding the original proposal, several do not readily lend themselves to remediation," wrote George H. Gauger of the Strategic Air Command, in a March 25 letter to state planner Michael E. Christensen.
"First, efforts to entirely avoid the proposed San Rafael Swell National Recreation Area (NRA) were frustrated by the presence of restricted/controlled airspace near the cities of Huntington and Price and waterfowl refuges near Huntington."
Therefore, the revised route flies over "a less-utilized portion of the San Rafael Swell."
Second, the length of the San Rafael Wild and Scenic River - protection proposed by the BLM - made it impossible to entirely bypass the river route, wrote Gauger.
To the west of the San Rafael Swell, the Fishlake Plateau lies under part of the route that offers limited potential for modification, because of safety reasons, he wrote. "Therefore, we restricted ourselves to narrowing the route corridor."
Endangered species in the Cricket Mountains and the location of Delta's airport limited the Air Force's options in avoiding Fremont Indian State Park. So it proposes to direct planes to keep to the south of the route centerline, "thereby ensuring two statute miles separation between flights and the park."
Gauger wrote that the park's archaeological resources are resistant by their nature to damage from vibrations, that is noise, cause by the bomber flights. "We feel the resulting horizontal separation is more than adequate," he said.
Because Howell Peak and Swazey Peak were not proposed for wilderness protection by the BLM, and because Air Force planes already fly over them, "totally avoiding Howell and Swazey peaks, as requested, is unnecessary."
He asked for comments from the state by May 15.
"They have rerouted somewhat to avoid Desolation Canyon," said Steve Erickson, spokesman for the military watchdog group Downwinders. "It is somewhat better than the last proposal, it has somewhat less impact on people and wildlife - but it still has significant impact on both, and on archaeological resources."
Erickson said Downwinders insists on hearings about the proposal and says an environmental impact statement should be written.
Beyond questions of environmental impacts, Downwinders doubts that another bomber training route is needed across Utah.
SAC already has low-level training routes covering 300,000 square miles of the continental United States, he said. The destination of the flights is the Utah Test and Training Range, but Erickson estimated that more than a dozen low-level entries to the UTTR are available from the west, north and south.
"They want an eastern entrance they say will save them money by saving fuel. But the real purpose of the route, as we view it and as they intimated in October and November, is that they want to fly additional terrain."