Joint Base Lewis-McChord is putting a controversial helicopter training proposal back in the hangar while it looks for high-altitude sites in the state where its aviation crews can train without disrupting hikers and campers.
Its initial proposal drew strong criticism from outdoors advocates who especially opposed the Army’s selection of a site in a wilderness area near Leavenworth.
The Army received 2,350 written comments about the plan, including a coordinated campaign from small-business owners in Leavenworth who worried that military helicopters would drive away tourists.
The comments factored into the Army’s decision to halt its proposal and look for new locations, according to a JBLM news release issued Thursday.
“The requirements are still there and we’re basically back to looking elsewhere,” base spokesman Joe Piek said.
The base had sought permission to let helicopters touch down at seven mountain locations, with four sites in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, two on the eastern edge of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and one east of North Cascades National Park.
The proposal included a low-altitude site west of Capitol State Forest.
Until the early 1990s, the Army had permits for helicopter crews to train at high elevations in Gifford Pinchot National Forest and near Mount Baker.
It let the permits expire when the military’s Gulf War drawdown led to a sharp reduction in the number of active-duty aviation units stationed at what then was called Fort Lewis.
Today, the number of helicopters at JBLM is back up to about 140. It gained a Special Operations aviation battalion and a conventional Army aviation brigade during the military’s Iraq War expansion.
The Army wants additional training areas for those units because they compete with each other and with drone pilots for time on ranges at JBLM and at the Army’s Yakima Training Center in Central Washington.
For high-altitude training like the Army wanted to pursue in the North Cascades, pilots must fly to Colorado.
Base officials say those restrictions are among the reason helicopter training is concentrated in the South Sound.
“Currently, JBLM does not have formal off-base training areas and landing zones, nor is JBLM’s airspace adequate to support helicopter aviation training due to limits on the number of aircraft allowed within each training area on base, and scheduling conflicts with other units,” JBLM aviation officials told The News Tribune in February.
The helicopter plan is one of two JBLM training proposals that drew intense public attention last summer. The other one is a test of whether the Army can fire a weapon called the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) at ranges on JBLM.
The rocket proposal also is on hold while the Army prepares its ranges for the weapon’s heavy training rounds. Until then, JBLM’s two HIMARS units will continue to practice at the Yakima training grounds.