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Army seeking public input on drone testing program

DUGWAY PROVING GROUND — Problems securing FAA approval to launch drones from the tiny community of Eskdale has Army officials seeking a permanent and alternative site on their own property.

The drone testing is part of a joint cruise missile defense system called JLENS that saw the Dugway putting in a launch site in Eskdale in 2009.

Complications with ground launches from the Snake Valley community of Eskdale arose with the FAA, so Dugway sought temporary permission to use its own property at the southern end of the Cedar Mountains.

Damon Nicholson, JLENS' program manager, said Wednesday the temporary approval allowed six test flights last year, but that will soon lapse.

Because the launch site is technically changing from Eskdale to Dugway, the Army has to detail and gather public input to obtain a modified environmental assessment that will consider impacts to nesting golden eagles at Dugway as well as other potential impacts to wildlife.

"In my opinion, it makes more sense to launch off a military installation rather than school trust lands," where the Eskdale site was located, Nicholson said.

A Wednesday meeting was held at the Salt Lake City Public Library to brief the public on the proposal to launch drones from Dugway.

Launching from Dugway will necessitate a round-trip flight of the drones, which will still fly over the Snake Valley before returning to Army property, rather than a one-way launch of the plane from Eskdale.

Wildlife biologists have already been on hand to observe potential interference with golden eagles, which Nicholson said are plentiful in the area and have to be monitored closely.

"One of the things we are concerned about is not disturbing the wildlife, " he said.

The Army hopes to have a completed environmental assessment put out for public comment over 30-day period in mid- to late February and a permanent plan in place by in March.

The drones and dirigibles used in the JLENS program are part of a coordinated effort by the U.S. military to beef up its cruise missile detection system both overseas and as part of homeland security.

"The government feels that JLENS fills a capability gap that the country lacks," Nicholson said.

Sometime later this year, JLENS will conduct a live-fire exercise over the Utah Test and Training Range north of I-80 where a drone will be shot down by a Patriot missile after it is detected by one of the aerostats.

That type of training, Nicholson added, will prove invaluable to the long-term success of the program.

Some Snake Valley residents have expressed concerns over the years with the drone flights and potential impacts to ranching and farming operations.

Cecil Garland said the military should consider conducting the flights elsewhere because the area is only going to get more populated over time.

Dugway spokeswoman Paula Thomas said Army officials plan to meet with Snake Valley residents next week to address their concerns.

A meeting is set for 2 p.m. Tuesday at Eskdale's community center and at 5 p.m. at the high school in Trout Creek.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

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