If the U.S. Army has its way, there will be combat helicopters landing within a mile of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in Washington’s North Cascades. The plan, submitted by aviation officials at Joint Base Lewis-McCord (JBLM), would create seven areas for high-altitude training in pristine U.S. Forest Service lands with one landing site actually within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area near Leavenworth.
According to the planning document, the Army needs the high-altitude training area because aviation units must be prepared for ongoing combat operations in Afghanistan. The document outlines problems associated with high-altitude flight, “High altitudes and mountainous terrain pose several challenges to Army helicopter pilots. High altitudes are associated with high wind, high-density altitude (i.e. pressure altitude that is corrected for temperature and humidity), turbulence and atmospheric instability. These factors greatly affect the performance of a helicopter engine and the handling characteristics of an aircraft.”
Currently, Army aviation conducts high-altitude training in Gypsum, Colorado, but argues it is too expense and time consuming for JBLM aviation to go to Colorado to train. The proposed training area would cover an area north of I – 90 and east of the crest of the Cascades north to the Canadian border. The Army has planned training areas near Leavenworth, Lake Chelan and along Highway 20 between Twisp and Concrete.
The Army told the Seattle Times that up to 75 landings could be conducted in these areas in a month and that aircrafts could fly as low as 25 feet. Andy Stahl, executive director of the group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), told the Seattle Times that training areas would also impact two mountain biking trails and that one site was located in a wetlands area. Stahl commented that the Pacific Crest Trail could be impacted by proposed U.S. Army training saying, “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.”
The Army is still conducting an environmental impact study on the proposal. The environmental study considers 13 areas to include the impact on wildlife, vegetation, recreation and endangered species. The Army plans to have a draft document ready for public review and comment on September 1, 2015 with public meetings to follow.