A version of this story first appeared in Talk of the Town, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau featuring the most important news and happenings in north-central Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.
By Sarah Rafacz of Spotlight PA State College
A controversial proposal to fly fighter jets close to the ground over the Pennsylvania Wilds is up for public comment again as military officials double-down on a claim the jets will not have a significant impact.
Residents, business owners, elected officials, and others in the Pennsylvania Wilds are deeply distressed by the plan, while a Shapiro administration official said the military’s finding of no significant impact is “premature and deeply flawed.”
The Maryland Air National Guard currently operates at 8,000 feet above sea level and higher over all or part of Cameron, Clinton, Elk, McKean, Potter, and Tioga Counties in north-central Pennsylvania, as well as a small area of southern New York.
In 2021, the military pitched a plan to dramatically lower that threshold to as low as 100 feet above ground level — approximately the height of a 10-story building.
“Low-level training is necessary to allow our military pilots to proceed to their target area, destroy said target, and then return home safely,” the Air National Guard told Spotlight PA.
“High-level, stand-off tactics” are not as viable or survivable as they once were, due to “our peer/near-peer adversaries” reaching the United States military’s “technological level when it comes to stealth and detection capabilities,” it continued.
According to Nicole Faraguna, the director of policy and planning for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the portion of the Pennsylvania Wilds over which low-altitude flights would occur includes Cherry Springs State Parks, internationally renowned for its dark skies, and nine other state parks; 35,000 acres of state game lands; 395,000 acres of state forest; and one of the most remote natural areas in Pennsylvania, the Hammersley Wild Area.
“I think some see that as a blank spot on the map,” she said.
Faraguna said that flight training would occur as low as 500 feet above most of the state parks and 1,000 feet above Hammersley, which she still considered very low over “pure wilderness.”
The groups opposing the proposal worry about noise pollution, disruption to livestock, and negative effects on the tourism and recreation economy of the region.
The Air National Guard recently released a new version of its environmental assessment for public comment that explains why it believes those concerns are unfounded, but it hasn’t convinced local stakeholders.
“We face many challenges in attracting and retaining a strong workforce,” Carolyn Boser Newhouse, executive director of the Bradford Area Alliance, told the Bradford Era. “Outdoor recreation in the form of hunting, fishing, hiking, etc. is one of our primary attractions. This application, if approved, puts our quality of life, as well as our real estate values at risk.”
The low-altitude fighter jet training would occur on about 170 days of the year, with two one-hour “sorties,” or aircraft deployments, occurring each of those days, according to Air National Guard materials. Those documents say aircraft would spend two to three minutes below 500 feet “per activation.” The aircraft would “stay under supersonic speeds,” and only two to four fighter jets would be flying at a time.
The Air National Guard acknowledges that this will result in an increase in “noise experienced on the ground.”
The proposal was up for public review initially at the end of 2021. According to the Maryland Air National Guard materials, 430 comments were made by community members, elected officials, special interest groups, and agencies.
As a result, “substantial changes” were made to the environmental assessment, according to the Air National Guard’s website.
Among those changes: “The document was revised to clarify some of the information presented and provide further justification to support a Finding of No Significant Impacts (FONSI),” the Air National Guard wrote. “A new Environmental Justice section was added to Chapter 3 that the public had not previously had an opportunity to review that includes the identification of low-income and minority populations within the study area and the expected impacts to those populations if the Proposed Action was implemented.”
According to the Maryland Air National Guard, the low-altitude flights would have “no significant effects” on noise, biological resources, land use, socioeconomics, safety, cultural resources, environmental justice, and airspace management.
The PA Wilds Center recently held an information session on the proposal.
Faraguna told Spotlight PA the release of the Finding of No Significant Impacts is “premature and deeply flawed.”
“We don’t believe that they have done a thorough review and analysis of the cumulative impacts,” she said, adding that the region might lose its identity as “the very essence of wilderness” if the flights are permitted.
Various interested parties have asked the Maryland Air National Guard to host public meetings on the proposal, but officials have not scheduled any.
In-person public meetings aren’t being planned at this time because they aren’t required for an environmental assessment, the Air National Guard told Spotlight PA.
“You have this proposal that’s basically being introduced and put forward without any real opportunity for the residents to speak and ask questions,” Faraguna said.
It would be the “ultimate flyover country,” she added.
After the public comment period closes in mid-May, the Air National Guard will determine whether the proposal needs additional work or is ready to go to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA could incorporate “all, part, or none of our documents into their own decision,” the Air National Guard said in a statement to Spotlight PA. Should the FAA modify the proposal, it would go back to the Air National Guard for approval.
A spokesperson for the FAA told Spotlight PA that it could take eight months or longer to approve or deny the proposal, “depending on the complexity.” If it’s approved, it would likely go into effect about two months later.
How to comment
The draft final environmental assessment is available online. Public comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mailed to Kristi Kucharek, National Guard Bureau, 3501 Fetchet Avenue, Joint Base Andrews, MD 20762-5157.
Public comment is open until May 17.
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