The US Air Force & the Owyhee

Updated: Aug 3


Four Air Force jets flying over desert landscape with clouds in the background
Photo by U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Brian Ferguson

The United States Air Force (“Air Force”) has proposed to lower the flight ceiling as well as the subsonic and supersonic barriers over the Mountain Home Air Force Base locations. This week, they are hosting in-person and virtual public hearings to give concerned citizens the chance to comment on and ask questions about the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that the Air Force has prepared. All six of the locations that this proposal would affect lie in the Owyhee. Let’s put this proposed action into perspective by reviewing some recent history.


In 1984, the Air Force wanted to expand its existing training grounds in Southern Idaho, and set its sights on the Owyhee region. During this time, there was not much known in the Owyhee, certainly not like there is today, thanks mainly to social media and the internet. Bringing the Owyhee into the public eye in this way was both a blessing and a curse; while the Owyhee is finally getting the recognition and love that it deserves, that also means that it has been experiencing increased traffic, which leads to further issues with littering and illegal offroading. In 1989, the Air Force’s proposal hit the media: they wanted to take 1.5 million acres in the Owyhee—used for livestock production and recreation at the time—and use it to drop bombs, shoot missiles, and fly at supersonic speeds at low altitude. This would have been the largest military training area expansion since World War II.


The military eyed this region in particular due to its lack of main paved roads (though there were gravel roads) and established towns. The military thought their idea of expansion of a bombing range would have very little pushback because of the very low population in the Owyhee. They soon found out that wasn't the case—their justification to use the Owyhee for training purposes was the same reason so many folks love it. The solitude and ruggedness of the landscape are two of its best qualities. Soon after this 1989 proposal, they found ranchers, environmentalists, recreationists, scientists, sportsmen, and Tribal representatives of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe of Duck Valley all sitting at the same table, concerned for the wellbeing of the land they knew and loved. This diverse group of representatives was in clear opposition to the proposed expansion of the bombing range, a view that many of the political leaders of Idaho did not share. From the early days, Oregon and Nevada were opposed to the expansion into their states’ portions of the Owyhee. In the end, numerous people from all walks of life convened to fight the Air Force’s expansion, including retired Air Force pilots like Herb Meyr, who I had the pleasure of meeting soon after I founded Friends of the Owyhee.


In the end, the fight between the public, the government, and the military was resolved in 1999. The Air Force lost the push to have an expansive bombing area to drop live ordinances on—since it would have restricted access to the area, removed cattle and killed wildlife, and severely damaged the ecosystem—but the two sides found a middle ground. Some low altitude flights would be permitted in the Idaho Owyhee during the months of April, May, and June, and two single-day exercises over the east and south forks of the Owyhee River would also be allowed each month. As for Oregon and Nevada, both states prohibit flying at altitudes below 10,000 feet. Since both states opposed the expansion, the Air Force decided against flying below 10,000 feet when training over these 2 states.


During the decade of this Air Force expansion proposal, some entities began suggesting a national monument in the Owyhee. In 1990, a local citizen presented the idea of designating the Owyhee as a national park to the Mountain Home Chamber of Commerce. For almost 10 years, the Committee for Idaho’s High Desert campaigned for this designation. While this idea may have appealed to some, the public lands of the Owyhee are well-known for being multiple-use. In this way, these two proposals brought unlikely allies together to discuss the future of the Idaho Owyhee; some aimed to prevent a national monument, others wanted to prevent future Air Force expansion, and some couldn’t imagine either being a reality. In 2009, ranchers, conservationists, sportsmen, and Tribal Nations successfully protected areas in the Owyhee and Bruneau/Jarbidge Canyons as Wilderness.


That brings us to 2021, and this Air Force expansion proposal of permitting low-level supersonic flights in the entire Owyhee region has resurfaced. The scoping meeting of this EIS was in the fall of 2019, 20 years after the failed bombing range expansion and more than 30 years after the first proposal. It seems like the fight to protect the Owyhee as a special, remote, and wild area is always under threat.


The newest iteration of this proposal includes all regions of the Owyhee for low-level supersonic flights for masking radar training. The reasons to oppose this effort have not changed; it will negatively impact wildlife, the ecosystem at large, ranching practices and the cattle themselves, recreation and sporting activities, and customary practices that local Tribal Nations have employed for centuries in their ancestral homeland. This may spark official protection of the Oregon Owyhee thanks to the precedent set in the Idaho Owyhee.


This is your chance to speak up for your public lands and your fellow friends of the Owyhee. We ask that you join us in opposing this new push for Air Force expansion in the Owyhee by submitting a public comment.

Sources

  • Bieter, John P. Jr. Showdown in the Big Quiet: Land, Myth, and Government in the American West. Texas Tech University Press, 2015.

  • Nokkentved, Niels Sparre. Desert Wings: Controversy in the Idaho Desert.Washington State University Press, 2003.

  • Personal conversations



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