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Mon December 6, 2010
Around the Nation

Plan To Widen Airspace Riles Dakota Ranchers

The northern Great Plains is among the most isolated parts of the country, making it perfect for raising cattle and finding solitude. But it's also an ideal training area for the Air Force, which hopes to expand its flights there.

That possibility is a cause for concern for people in both the ranching and aviation industries in the area. At 500 feet overhead, a B-1 bomber at full throttle can sound louder than a rock concert. The noise is above the normal threshold for pain.

Stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, B-1 bombers often use the Power River Training Complex, which includes parts of South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. The military is proposing a fourfold expansion of the space, which would then cover more of both Dakotas, and parts of Wyoming and Montana.

Infringing On A 'Last Frontier'

On a recent wintry afternoon on the Dakota Plains, the prairie wind packed a cold bite. But that didn't stop the Reinhold family from going out to bring home the cattle.

The Reinholds loaded four of their children into the back of an SUV and drove across the prairie, tossing out pellets of cattle feed as they go. Larry Reinhold's family has owned this ranch for more than a century.

"There aren't many places like Western South Dakota, and this is kind of the last frontier. It's pretty neat," he says.

Reinhold worries about plans to expand the training range. If that happens, war planes would streak through these skies, flying as low as 500 feet and sometimes breaking the sound barrier.

Col. Jeff Taliaferro says the expansion is vital for Air Force crews preparing for combat.

"We have to do realistic training," he says. "We need airspace that fits today's needs, not 20 years' ago needs. We need airspace that matches the combat environment."

For the Air Force, the low population density here makes the northern Plains a great place to train for overseas missions.

Many of the ranchers say they understand the need for training -- but they also complain that the military flights could spook their cattle and lower their land's value.

At a recent public meeting on the issue, rancher Marvin Kammerer stood up and shook his rough, calloused fist as he spoke.

"You wouldn't want to buy a house and live next to a railroad track," he said. "That would be rather stupid if you wanted peace and quiet -- and we treasure that."

Ranchers point to more than two dozen court cases where landowners have been compensated for excess aircraft noise. Kammerer says that at the very least, the ranchers should get some consideration.

"If you want the overflight and use of this land," he says, "then have the good grace to pay us like you do everybody else, in easements and property damage."

Impact On The Local Economy

This economic issue stretches beyond ranchers. Ray Jilek manages the airport in the town of Spearfish, S.D. The number of flights out of the small airstrip would be cut in half to make way for military training.

Jilek says the airport is in the middle of a $15 million expansion project, as the military forms its plan.

And all of the sudden they are going to say, 'OK, you've made the investment -- but we're only going to let you use it part of the time now,' " he says.

The Air Force says there are no plans to pay anyone here for losses.  However, military officials stress they will do all they can to address concerns.

But ranchers like Robert Heidgerken say the opinions of those who are scattered across this rural part of the country are being ignored.

"We don't deserve to be treated this way," Heidgerken says. "We're American citizens, we provide a service to the country, we provide food for them -- and I really feel that we deserve better than this."

Air Force officials say they will announce their decision by this summer. The bombers could begin flying in the wider airspace by late 2012, barring any legal action on the issue. Rural residents here cherish their tranquility -- but they're promising to be anything but tranquil if this plan moves forward. Copyright 2011 South Dakota Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.sdpb.org/radio/.