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LAND NEEDS FOR A.F. RANGE OVERSTATED, BLM SAYS

SHARE LAND NEEDS FOR A.F. RANGE OVERSTATED, BLM SAYS

Forget those stories about the U.S. Bureau of Land Management saying that up to a half million acres in the West Desert should be withdrawn from public use to lessen the dangers of a proposed Air Force electronic combat range.

No such claims or proposals exist. The Air Force is not even trying to permanently withdraw any land at all for the range, nor does the BLM at present think it should, said Jerry Meredith, chief of BLM public communications in Utah.

He said stories to the contrary resulted from misunderstandings by the media and officials at the BLM's Washington offices about a letter that the BLM staff in Utah wrote for the signature of BLM Director Cy Jamison.

Meredith said that letter responded to an inquiry from the National Wildlife Federation asking how much public land might face withdrawal if Air Force requests for simple non-permanent rights of way for the range were insufficient.

Meredith said the BLM responded by figuring out how much land it had beneath the fly area - 455,000 acres.

The letter said, however, that while the Air Force has talked about using no more than 396 acres there, "An alternative is to withdraw the affected 455,000 acres," noting safety concerns exist about supersonic aircraft that "will drop chaff and flares" over the range and fly at low altitude.

BLM officials in Washington interviewed about the letter said the 455,000-acre "alternative" was just a worst-case scenario, but they believed more land than the 396 acres talked of by the Air Force would have to be withdrawn from public use to ensure safety.

Meredith said that was just a misunderstanding about the letter coupled with Washington officials not being as familiar with details of Air Force proposals as are BLM officials in Utah.

"There is no formal proposal for withdrawal by us or the Air Force. That's not to say that it couldn't happen after the environmental impact statement (about the range) is finished. But we don't envision that," Meredith said. "I know if I had read the letter, I could have interpreted it differently too."

The Air Force has applied for land use permits and rights of way for 396 acres to allow up to 100 small cement pads to house electronic equipment - which will simulate radio and radar jamming during battle - and for roads leading to them.

Maj. George Ledbetter, a Norton Air Force Base, Calif., legal officer who has been reviewing the soon-to-be-released environmental impact statement about the range, said the Air Force shouldn't have to permanently withdraw a single acre for it - and that operations pose little public danger.

"I couldn't justify withdrawing any (land) at all if I had to because our land-based operations will be so small. We just need rights of way and use permits," he said.

To allay safety worries about flares and low-level flying, he said flares to be dropped from planes are designed so they would burn out before hitting the ground, and would drop only plastic casings.

Some small rockets fired from the ground as signals of simulated anti-aircraft fire would "be like the model rockets you play with in your backyard. They would just leave a plastic casing, but we would pick them up," Ledbetter said.

He also said that planned flights for the range "are not that much different than what already occurs in much of the area."

And he said the concrete pads that will house equipment on the ground will look like "a campsite for a Winnebago." When the Air Force leaves, they could easily be torn up and the area would return to natural use.

Ledbetter also said the Air Force wants to disturb the area as little as possible and build few roads.

One reason is that the Air Force doesn't want pilots to easily be able to find electronic equipment by following roads to it. "That would defeat the whole purpose of training on the range," he said.