House votes to block lawsuit challenging military training flights

RENO, Nev. - The House approved a measure Thursday that would block a lawsuit filed by ranchers and environmentalists in Nevada and eight other states who want to halt low-level military training flights.

''This is clearly in response to our lawsuit,'' said Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity in Berkeley, Calif.

''Pressure has been building for decades for the military to account for these flights,'' Galvin said.

The center is among 12 groups that filed the lawsuit against the Pentagon in January seeking an injunction to ban Air Force training flights until the government conducts a broad assessment of their environmental impact on livestock, fish and wildlife.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington accuses the Air Force of violating the National Environmental Policy Act, intentionally underestimating the effects of the flights by assessing the routes individually rather than as a whole across the country.

It says the Defense Department began a nationwide environmental assessment of the training flights in the 1980s but never completed it.

The Rural Alliance for Military Accountability in Reno and the Nevada Outdoor Recreation Association in Carson City are among the plaintiffs. Other states represented are California, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota, Texas, Idaho and Arizona.

But the lawsuit would be declared moot under an amendment Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, attached to the defense authorization bill that passed the House on Thursday night, 353-63. It now moves to the Senate.

The amendment says all previous environmental reviews of the training flight routes ''are deemed to satisfy'' federal regulations.

It also states that future efforts to establish new military air space or expand existing space for the training flights ''shall be considered separately'' in determining whether there is any environmental impact.

Air Force airspace used for the flight training program covers nearly 1 million square miles, most of it across public lands in the West.

Hansen, chairman of the House Resources subcommittee on public lands and a senior member of the House Armed Forces Committee, says the amendment only clarifies existing law.

''What these folks want is a permanent end to all training,'' said Bill Johnson, Hansen's legislative director.

''They say we have to consider a nationwide cumulative impact whenever you want to train somewhere,'' he said. ''So when someone does an EIS on a training area in Nevada, these folks want them to include the mating habits of whitetail deer in Pennsylvania.''

Some of the military aircraft fly as low as 100 feet off the ground at speeds up to 645 miles per hour, the lawsuit says.

Richard Smucker, a backer of the suit who lives on a ranch near Austin, Nev., said flights from Fallon Naval Air Station have raised the roof on his home and caused cattle to kick ranch hands.

''It's kind of like a tornado that almost sucks your roof off. It shakes the house like a dead rat,'' Smucker said recently.

The Defense Department acknowledged in a recent court filing that a ''generic environmental impact statement'' on training flights was prepared in the form of a preliminary draft in January 1990. But it never was released for public comment because Air Force noise experts concluded ''it lacked technical merit.''

Justice Department spokeswoman Christine Romano said the Air Force conducts ''environmental reviews that consider cumulative impacts.'' But ''there's no overall program in the sense the plaintiff thinks there is for purposes of environmental review.''

''The Air Force thinks it is appropriate to look at its training program in individual components,'' she said.

Johnson said the government intends to ask a judge to dismiss the suit, and Romano said Hansen's amendment would ''negate'' the suit.

While Hansen is confident the suit will be dismissed, he added the amendment to guard against a ''green-leaning'' judge granting the injunction, Johnson said.

The overall defense authorization bill including the amendment passed the House Armed Services Committee 56-1. ''Nobody can say this was snuck in the bill,'' Johnson said.

Galvin said that's only because it was attached to ''must-pass'' legislation. The defense bill authorizes the military's annual spending.

''If they were to bring this thing as a stand-alone measure - The Reduction in Environmental Protection for Low-Level Military Flights Act - it wouldn't pass.''

The bill number is H.R. 4205.

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