THE sight of falcons and eagles soaring over the spectacularly beautiful canyonlands of southwestern Idaho should not be controversial. But when those ``birds'' are F-16 Falcons and F-15 Strike Eagles - top-of-the-line warplanes - political feathers are sure to fly.
The United States Air Force wants to set up two new practice bombing ranges south of Mountain Home Air Force Base. Combat pilots have been training in the area for years, but this would involve more supersonic flights, more air-to-ground simulated attacks, and a network of 32 electronic ``threat emitters'' to make the aerial combat as real as possible.
While the proposed new target ranges encompass just 25,321 acres, the actual operating area in which the fighters and bombers will dogfight and streak around at low level is some 3 million acres - about the size of Connecticut.
One of these bombing ranges is just seconds (by jet) from the Duck Valley Shoshone-Paiute Indian Reservation. And between the two ranges flows the Owyhee River, whose canyons have been compared to the Grand Canyon and are home to bighorn sheep and other wild animals.
At recent public hearings in Idaho, environmentalists and native American leaders spoke out strongly against the Air Force project.
Within the training range are sacred sites, including graves, said tribal leader Lindsey Manning. ``It's also a place where we get our spiritual connection to the Creator,'' he said.
The Owyhee River flows north from Nevada, cutting through the reservation and across the southwest corner of Idaho before it enters Oregon where it flows north into the Snake River. Its canyons are a particular favorite of hikers and river runners.
At a hearing in Twin Falls, one river guide called it ``the Sistine Chapel of all canyonlands.''
Environmentalists also say the bombing ranges would impact several endangered species, 15 wilderness-study areas, and rivers that could be federally listed as ``wild and scenic.''
They are particularly concerned about the impact of jet noise, damage from the metal ``chaff'' pilots use to counter simulated enemy radar, and the potential of fires from flares dropped by aircraft flying overhead.
Air Force officials say they've been cautious about protecting areas of archeological or environmental significance in their plans, which have been cut back several times since they were first proposed.
Only practice bombs without explosives (not live ordnance) will be used, and pilots are not to break the sound barrier below 10,000 feet.
In addition, the Air Force says the proposed training areas are particularly important in the post-cold-war era when the military must be able to respond rapidly to potential threats anywhere in the world.
The service's new 336th Air Intervention Composite Wing, recently formed at Mountain Home and consisting of F-15s, F-16s, B-52s, and aerial tankers, is designed for deployment within 48 hours. It's the only one of its kind in the Air Force.
``Our troops need to be as combat-ready as possible,'' said Mountain Home spokesman Lt. Brian McPeek.
``In order to do that, we need more air-to-ground range space to set up a more realistic battle scenario,'' he says.
Critics have suggested that wing pilots could reach existing training ranges in Nevada and Utah in as little as 20 minutes.
But with budgeted flying time limited and very expensive, Lt. McPeek says, the Air Force doesn't want to spend 40 minutes each flight commuting.
One ally of the Air Force is Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus (D), a former interior secretary who is a well-known fighter for the environment.
At the recent public hearings, called to hear testimony on the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) required under federal law, Governor Andrus sought to assure Idahoans that their treasured canyonlands would be protected.
Andrus also stressed the economic importance of making sure Mountain Home Air Force Base doesn't get the ax as the Defense Department scales back. The base employs 4,500 military and civilian personnel, making it the second-largest employer in the state.
``This is a battle Idaho cannot afford to lose,'' he said. ``Our air base pumps $300 million every year into the economy, which includes $150 million in direct payroll.''
Andrus and other Idaho officials are so eager to get the new training range that they have proposed a land swap with the federal Bureau of Land Management to provide the areas needed by the Air Force.
Not everyone agrees with the economic argument.
William Weida, an economics professor at the Colorado College and a former combat pilot and Pentagon official, says the draft EIS ``contains a number of critical errors in its treatment of the socioeconomic effects associated with the proposed'' training range.
For example, in a report commissioned by the environmental group Snake River Alliance, Professor Weida asserts that the Air Force has not considered the economic impact of using other ranges nor has it figured the economic losses to the area due to effects on recreation, property taxes, or income from grazing fees.
The Air Force is taking comments on the draft environmental impact statement until Feb. 9. A final decision on whether to proceed with the target ranges will be made this summer.