National Guard renews talks with Penobscot tribe over expanding low-level flights in Maine

By: David Sharp

PORTLAND, Maine — The National Guard is reaching out to the Penobscot Indian Nation in hopes of restarting discussions over a proposal to double the amount of airspace in which fighter jets could conduct low-level training over western Maine.

The tribe, which owns 20,000 acres in the training area, remains steadfast in its objection and is deciding whether to re-engage in talks, said Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis.

Like many in western Maine, tribal members who use land in Alder Stream Township don’t like the prospect of screeching jets interrupting their activities.

“The tribe has formulated its position. We don’t know what value there is in continuing the conversation,” Francis said. “The National Guard seems to have a hard time letting it go.”

The Massachusetts National Guard, whose fighters were first on the scene in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, contends more airspace is needed for training for homeland defense. That includes additional low-level training for fighter pilots to practice identifying and intercepting enemy aircraft.

Under the proposal, F-15s and F-16s from National Guard units in Massachusetts and Vermont would be allowed to fly as low as 500 feet over the hills and mountains of western Maine and a sliver of northern New Hampshire.

Not mentioned in the original proposal is the military’s newest fighter, the stealthy F-35, which the Vermont Air National Guard will receive in 2020. Those fighters are even noisier than the older jets.

The process of completing an Environmental Impact Statement is underway, and federal law requires the government to consider any impact on traditional cultural resources of American Indians as part of its effort.

While the Penobsots have a reservation on Indian Island, they use Alder Stream Township for hiking, fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities. The land is also used for cultural events and rites of passage like the vision quest to find spiritual guidance, Francis said. The flights also could interfere with future efforts to develop wind power, he said.

As it stands, fighter pilots are allowed to drop down 500 feet in narrow corridors within the 4,000-square-mile Condor Military Operation Area in western Maine and a small area of northern New Hampshire.

The proposal would lower the flight deck across the entire training area. The National Guard said the proposal would disperse noise from the low-level flights over a wider area.

“The proposed changes to Condor will prevent noise concentration on the ground since low-altitude flight would be spread over the entire MOA,” said Jeremy Webster, a National Guard spokesman in Arlington, Virginia. “Low-altitude training will only be conducted for a few hours during each month.”

The National Guard had a similar proposal in 1992 but it was withdrawn under pressure from residents and then-Gov. John McKernan.

The current effort has again faced gubernatorial objections, first from Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and then from Republican Gov. Paul LePage. LePage told the National Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011 that the expanded training area is a “want, not a need.”

The National Guard renewed its efforts to reach out to the tribe in January, and it’s also corresponding with state and federal agencies, Webster said.

Francis said he remains hopeful that the National Guard can find alternatives. But he worries that the tribe and other opponents could be steamrolled in the name of national security.

“When those things are needed under the premise of protecting the country, if it’s truly needed for those purposes, I’m not sure that it can be stopped,” he said.