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Decision Pending for Army Training in WA Backcountry

Rafters on the Wenatchee River may not mix well with helicopters landing in the nearby Enchantment Peak area. Credit: Wildwater River Guides
Rafters on the Wenatchee River may not mix well with helicopters landing in the nearby Enchantment Peak area. Credit: Wildwater River Guides
November 4, 2015

LEAVENWORTH, Wash. - The comment period has just closed for a U.S. Army proposal to do helicopter training exercises in some scenic Washington recreation spots.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord says its crews could practice landing helicopters on local mountains rather than flying to Colorado, as they do now for high-terrain practice. But since the idea was first proposed this summer, more than 65 environmental groups and local businesses have disagreed with the site selection.

Lance Reif, owner of the Wildwater River Guides raft company in Leavenworth, said he thinks choppers don't fit with the outdoorsy local economy.

"I think having that stuff would make it less attractive for people to want to come to the area to experience those wilderness," he said. "And with less people in the area, that's going to affect everything from the wine industry to the orchards to the recreational services."

The groups and business owners signed a letter to the Army detailing their concerns, and military leaders appear to be listening. The comment period was extended twice, in part after Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., voiced concerns that rural Washingtonians have enough to worry about with wildfire recovery.

Some of the proposed helicopter landing sites are on existing trails in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. What the groups don't want, said Tom Uniack, conservation director of Washington Wild, is for military training exercises to reverse years of careful planning that has made the area a gem for recreation.

"Yeah, it's concerning, you know," he said. "It does not appear that the Army has really made an effort to look at how important recreation trails, impacts to wildlife are to the local communities that are closest to the training areas they're proposing."

Uniack said the letter indicates support for having well-trained soldiers, but added that that's possible using other parts of the rural West. A final Environmental Assessment is due in the spring.

The letter is online at wawild.org. The Army's proposal is at lewis-mcchord.army.mil.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA