- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

PARTOUN, Utah (AP) - The U.S. Air Force wants to expand its test range in rural Utah to give more room for F-35 pilots to train.

Air Force officials told about 50 people at a community meeting this week in Partoun, Utah, that no missiles or bombs would be dropped in the extra 700,000 acres, the Salt Lake Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/1pJbxyn).

But pilots would be able to fire at targets within the existing boundaries of the Utah Test and Training Range, said Chris Robinson, the range’s director of operations.

The training range currently spans 2.3 million acres in an area that is one-third larger than Delaware. The U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground is within the range. The Air Force manages all the air space.

The F-35 is a new fighter jet that the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps will be using. Hill Air Force base in northern Utah is set to receive 72 of the jets next year. The base does maintenance work on the F-35 jets.

The transfer of the land from the state to the federal government could be done administratively, but Sen. Orrin Hatch prefers that Congress approve the deal to make sure it goes through faster and contains more protections or land users, said Ed Cox, a staffer for Hatch.

If approved, the expansion of the training ground would mean development is prohibited on the land, which is west of Salt Lake City. Ranchers and hunters who use the land would still have access, Robinson said.

Robinson asked the residents of Juab County for their cooperation in the expansion project. As he stood at a map of the area, he pointed to the proposed area and said, “If someone puts a wind farm there, I’m done testing.”

He said a wind farm would cause obstructions in the air space and create electronic interference.

None of the residents in attendance at the hearing Monday voiced their opposition to the idea. Many residents are already used to the noise of the jets flying.

Some people asked tough questions of Robinson, though, about the details of the proposal.

Rancher Alan Johnson, for instance, said he wanted assurances that existing grazing permits would be honored.

“I’m not afraid of you bombing, but if you take that grazing permit, that’s a third of my acreage and I’m out of business,” said Johnson, the Tribune reports.

The area within the projected expansion includes part of the Pony Express Trail Road, the area’s main road to Salt Lake City.

Kathy Hill, of Partoun, said she wants the road off-limits to closures, which she said would be a major hardship for the residents.

Joseph Matthews, a rancher and farmer in the area, said he is also worried about how road closures could impact them in the case of an emergency when they need to use the road.

“We want to support our troops but, my golly, it feels like we’re not getting the whole picture,” Matthews said.

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