Army aviation officials at Joint Base Lewis-McChord want to create a North Cascades training area for helicopter pilots to practice flyovers and high-altitude landings on U.S. Forest Service lands.
The high-elevation mountain training area would extend over an aerial space largely east of the Cascades from around Leavenworth up to the Canadian border.
It would include seven remote landing zones, including one just inside the boundary of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area and another within a mile of the Pacific Crest Trail north of Highway 20.
The new proposal outlined in a scoping document would also include three low-elevation training areas in Southwest Washington.
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This would be a significant expansion of the Army’s off-base aerial operations in Washington.
Army officials say the North Cascades landing sites would provide vital preparation for operating in Afghanistan or other high-altitude areas where pilots must cope with decreased aircraft performance.
JBLM’s high-altitude training is currently done in Colorado.
But Army officials say trips to Colorado are expensive, and the training sites there are often unavailable. So, they want a closer site, according to the document.
The Army document says pilots could fly as low as 25 feet over obstacles in the Washington high-altitude training zone.
The zone would be available for use day and night and all year long. Helicopter units would make up to 75 practice landings in a given month, according to a statement released to The Seattle Times.
The Army’s push to create these new training areas follows a Navy plan released last year to have trucks with mobile electronic emitters in the Olympic, Okanogan and Colville national forests assist in training jets for electronic warfare.
The Army proposal, still in an early phase, will be followed by an environmental-assessment study. The Army would request a special-use permit for the landing zones from the Forest Service.
Glen Sachet, a spokesman for the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest region, said his agency will then do its own review.
The proposed landing site just within the eastern edge of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area is likely to get special attention.
“Typically, helicopter landings are not allowed in wilderness,” said Sachet, who said the Army would have to show there are no areas outside the wilderness suitable for the training.
The proposal already has drawn scrutiny from the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a watchdog group that has done an initial analysis of the landing sites.
In addition to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness landing site and the one near the Pacific Crest Trail, they found that two sites intersected a mountain bike and motorbike trail, while another was in a wetlands area.
“Our national forests are not some annex of the Defense Department. We think that except for a few sites, they should be off-limits to the military,” said Andy Stahl, the group’s executive director.
Army officials say that both training needs and pilot safety were considered in selecting the proposed landing zones. They range in size from approximately 1 acre to 6.5 acres. While they would be used to simulate missions, there would be no refueling, use of live ordinance, troop movements or equipment placed on the ground, according to the Army proposal.
Pilots would train on AH-64 Apache, MH/CH-47 Chinook and MH/UH-Black Hawk helicopters.
Army officials, in the statement released to The Seattle Times, said “adjustments” to the proposed landing zones could occur and that a land-use agreement would have to be reached with the Forest Service.
The Army hopes to produce a draft environmental assessment by Sept. 1.
Through the end of September, the Army would hold public meetings and accept comments on the proposal.