In the Arizona desert, it's pronghorns versus F-16s

Fight between environmentalists and military over control of a bombing

From an observation tower that climbs 25 feet into the air, range manager Col. David White talks of skill and preparedness.

Piercing the pale blue skies with a loud rumble, the F-16 fighter comes into view with a rush, pumping 50 to 100 bullets into the targets in a half-second burst before flying off.

"That guy's good, very good," says Colonel White, as the top gun pilot from Luke Air Force Base completed his training run. "That's what this is all about. To prepare people for when the bullets start to fly for real."

Amid the dust in the desert, a battle is raging between the military and environmentalists over who should control one of America's largest bombing ranges - one that sprawls over 1.6 million acres of Sonoran desert in southwestern Arizona.

Both sides agree that what happens at this key spot in Arizona could have a profound effect on how bombing ranges nationwide are managed. They say others may look to what happens in this desert place to guide future decisions elsewhere.

For now, the military has won the dogfight, getting Congress recently to hand over the reins of this biologically sensitive expanse. For the next 25 years, the military has primary responsibility to manage the range, used by pilots to train since 1941.

But environmentalists are not surrendering. And pressure on the military is stronger than ever.

In Puerto Rico, for example, protesters blocked the gates at Camp Garcia to prevent renewed exercises at a nearby naval bombing range. The standoff ended Saturday, but protesters continue to demand closure of the range, which came under fire in April when a stray bomb accidentally killed a civilian.

And in Idaho, a federal judge last week approved an agreement between environmentalists and the military for expansion of the training range at Mountain Home Air Force Base. Under the deal, money will be set aside for environmental concerns and supersonic flights will be limited.

Military and environmentalists agree that the stakes are high on the Arizona bombing range, which has more than 600 endangered species and where important artifacts abound.

"We couldn't have an effective fighter force without the Goldwater range," says Col. Fred Pease, the US Air Force's chief of ranges and air space in Washington. "The real challenge is how do you conduct military training and testing and still be responsible. "That's what we're trying to do."

Environmental groups say the military needs to be watched closely.

"It is more important than ever that the military be held accountable for the resource management of the range, because they will be in charge for years to come," says Jeff Ruch, who heads Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington. "They need someone to pull them in if they get off track."

Conservationists still back a proposal that gives the National Park Service control of the range lands not used by the military. Six percent currently is used for bombing and other purposes. The plan would create a park preserve that would include Organ Pipe National Monument and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

Environmentalists say the park service would be a better steward of the land, because of its history of running other lands and the military's poor performance here.

Individuals met last week in Tucson, Ariz., to plot their latest moves, buoyed by proposed legislation from Arizona Sen. John McCain that calls for a two-year study of the best use for the land.

Backers say the legacy of the past should be enough to force change. As proof, the public employees group has cited a list of items alleging a "conscious disregard" for environmental and historic preservation in a complaint with the US Air Force Inspector General's Office.

Among the alleged abuses was the accidental dropping of a 2,000-pound bomb in an area supposed to be safe for public use. The military disputes these findings.

The military also faces a lawsuit by the Defenders of Wildlife that seeks to halt operations to protect the more than 150 endangered Sonoran pronghorn at the range.

"The cumulative effects of the military activities are taking their toll on the species, and we need oversight by the Department of Interior, the country's chief land steward," says Chandra Rosenthal, a lawyer with the group.

But military officials strongly defend their track record in caring for the natural and cultural resources at the range. That includes putting a biologist and archaeologist on staff. Overall, they estimate that $22 million has been spent since 1995.

They have met with public and special interests and many have a seat at the table when plans are put together. More meetings are scheduled as the military puts together a resource-management plan.

White, the range manager, says the military's commitment is strong and laws already on the books mandate that the lands will be protected.

For example, he says range officials check areas for the endangered pronghorn before bombing operations begin and call them off if the animals are discovered. Last year, 60 missions were cancelled and another 100 shifted.

"We will do the right thing," he says. "We will be good stewards of the land. It's just a matter of time before we can prove it. The past proves we've been serious, and I see nothing that will change that. Nothing."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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