- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - It would be a “terrible loss” to the U.S. Air Force if it doesn’t move forward with a proposal to establish an enormous bomber training area over the Northern Plains, South Dakota U.S. Sen John Thune says.

The Republican senator pushed back Tuesday against criticisms from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who is calling on federal officials to stop or make changes to the proposed expansion of the Powder River Training Complex over the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming. An Air Force decision could come by the end of the month, and then it would go before federal aviation regulators for authorization.

The proposed expansion would quadruple the training airspace, making it the largest over the continental United States. It would be used by B-1 bombers at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and B-52 bombers at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.

“It’s enormously significant on a national security standpoint, and it’d be really tragic if it didn’t move forward,” Thune said.

Thune has the said the expansion would also provide an additional layer of protection against Base Realignment and Closure for Ellsworth, which is a significant economic driver for the Rapid City area.

Bullock said in a letter dated Monday to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx that the proposal should be dropped. And if it moves forward, the Democratic governor asked for changes, including more measures to protect civilian aircraft from harm.

Montana elected leaders and state aviation officials have said the bombers would disrupt rural communities and scare livestock as they roar overhead on maneuvers, dropping flares and chaff.

“There is no doubt that Montanans support our nation’s efforts to enhance national security,” Bullock wrote. “The (Powder River Training Complex) expansion proposal, however, would be at the expense of the livelihoods and economic prosperity of many Montanans.”

Under the Air Force plan, any given location across the training area could see up to nine low-altitude overflights annually. Supersonic flights would be limited to 10 days a year during large-scale exercises involving roughly 20 aircraft.

As many as 78 civilian flights a day could be impacted when the large-scale exercises are conducted, the Air Force said.

The Air Force acknowledged in a study released Nov. 28 that the low-altitude flights and loud sonic booms have the potential to startle ranchers, recreationists and those living on four reservations in the region.

But Thune said the concerns that Montana officials raised have been addressed.

“At this point, the process is awfully late now to start trying to raise additional issues,” said Thune, who started working on the project in 2006. “The wheel’s been in motion for a long time.”

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