The Air Force proposal to create a new low-level bomber route over Utah is an abomination that must be fought with every legal weapon available.

Giant B-52 bombers would blast along only 400 to 600 feet above the ground at 390 mph, while B-1Bs would screech through at 500 feet and 620 mph.Responding to criticism, the Air Force recently modified its plans to avoid some wilderness and wildlife areas, notably the Green River's Desolation Canyon, but not others, including the world-famous San Rafael Swell.

In fact, the bomber route, a swath 81/2 miles wide curving through the state from east to west, appears to go directly over the Wedge Overlook in the middle of the Swell.

The Wedge is probably one of the supreme viewpoints in Utah, offering a magnificent panorama into the San Rafael River's "Little Grand Canyon." It is truly like a small version of the Grand Canyon.

The route is intended to give bombers another track to the Utah Test and Training Range, Tooele County. They already have access through two routes, but now Air Force planners want a third.

"Both of them (the existing routes) basically are in the southwestern part of the country," said John Mastrianni, a Strategic Air Command environmental expert at Offutt Air Force, Neb., who is preparing an environmental assessment on the plan. To reach the range by the established paths requires aircraft from the eastern, central and northeastern parts of the country to swing through a "huge detour," he said, "which burns up their training time and flying time and fuel, among other things."

Lawson LeGate, associate southwest regional representative for the Sierra Club, said that the jets can get to the range without resorting to a new route.

And in the overall view, no savings would be accomplished by setting up an east-west corridor, he said, because we're going to be paying through the damage done to the people who live or recreate in the region, and through harm to wildlife and livestock.

"They're not saving money, they're transferring the cost on to the rest of us," LeGate said.

Besides, military operations areas are proliferating across the country. "I just read that in Nevada they want to expand one area that the military is using for overflights, fivefold . . .

"A lot of people point to Desert Storm and say, `Well look, the military needs this.' But the Operation Desert Storm military success is proof, I think without argument, that the military did just fine with the practice area they now have. Why on earth do they need to expand it into Utah with these very special lands?"

Bud Scruggs, chief of staff for Gov. Norm Bangerter, said, "We are still demanding that a full environmental impact statement be done, even with the modifications. We are not trying to throw unfair obstacles in the way of the Air Force - they are welcome in the state - but we think that the affected landowners have a right to have a full understanding of the impacts of this land use."

Scruggs wondered whether low-level bomber flights might affect land use and exclude uses for which some areas are protected.

"We have an obligation to make sure that everybody understands exactly what impact this is going to have on those public lands," he said.

Mastrianni said the public comment period for the purposes of the environmental assessment ended on Wednesday but that he is willing to let the state send its comments in about a week later "because they couldn't compile their comments in time for the May 15 deadline."

Does that mean that if somebody other than the state has a comment now, Mastrianni won't accept it? Well, he said, he wouldn't rip up the envelope; he'd incorporate the information.

In an earlier letter, Michael Christenson, state planning coordinator, wrote to Mastrianni that the proposal carried large potential impacts on the people and environment of Utah.

"For example, there are prime recreational areas under the flight path, such as Desolation Canyon and the San Rafael Swell. Wildlife and domestic livestock grazing habits may be disrupted," he wrote.

Now Desolation Canyon is saved, but the Swell is under a terrible threat.

In addition to the cattle, Big Horn sheep and campers throughout the Swell, such endangered species as peregrine falcons would be harmed. I personally know where peregrines nest in the San Rafael Reef, the Swell's 55-mile-long eastern and southern rim.

The Swell is nationally important - for unparalleled scenery, clear skies, solitude, generally undamaged wildlife habitat, archaeological remains, the presence of indigenous rare species.

But those are just words: They are only shadows of the real experience of hiking in sandstone slot canyons or looking out over miles of rugged, creased, rocky landscape; they are ghosts of the smell of juniper; the haunting memory of a twitter of cliff swallows.

They don't really inform you about the calm of the desert dreaming under a low cloud bank. Imagine quietly waiting for stew to boil at sunset, sitting on a big slab of rock at the Wedge Overlook, when a B-52 screams out of the clouds.

Let all who have glimpsed the soul of the desert speak out now, send photographs and letters, books and poems to:

John Mastrianni


Offutt Air Force Base,

NE 68113-5001.