The Common Good
March-April 1996

Shattered Skies

by Tom Boswell | March-April 1996

Diverse groups join together to oppose military flights in the Midwest.

Nancy Hobbs and her husband, Jack, had a dream. Three years ago they bought a 100-acre farm at the end of a gravel road nestled in the gentle, rolling hills of southwest Wisconsin.

They raised a herd of Nubian goats and began to breed rare steers from France and mares from Scotland. Master gardeners, their goal was to create an English-style country estate that would also serve as a "learning center" for urban visitors.

But Nancy and Jack's idyllic dream has been shattered by low-flying Air National Guard cargo planes, which have caused their goats and cattle to stampede and their watchdog to cower in the barn.

"I can't deal with it anymore," Nancy Hobbs laments.

But this is only the beginning. If an Air National Guard proposal is approved, soon F-16s, B-52s, B-2 Stealth bombers, and other aircraft will conduct up to 2,150 low-level practice bombing runs annually up and down the picturesque Kickapoo Valley.

The Guard plan includes a 7,137-acre expansion of a bombing range at Volk Field, 80 miles northwest of Madison, Wisconsin; creation of two new low-level flight corridors in Wisconsin and Iowa; and increased use of an existing corridor running west into Minnesota.

Residents fear that the serenity and natural beauty of the region (home to several major wildlife refuges) will be threatened and tourism, farming, and other means of livelihood jeopardized by military jets roaring over the ridgetops. At least four coalitions have mobilized in Wisconsin and Iowa to oppose the plan.

The Ho-Chunk Indian tribe, which operates day care and senior centers and a casino near the range, has formed a coalition with local businesses, cranberry growers, and other non-Indians to thwart the expansion plan.

"Already our school children hit the floor in panic when the bombers approach the range so low and loud," said Ona Whitewing Garvin, a Ho-Chunk legislator. "Can you imagine the horrific impact on them and all forms of life if the range is expanded and flights increased?"

Last April, elders of eight Old Order Amish churches in the region wrote to the Air National Guard.

"We plead with you to stop this plan because it would be alien and disastrous to our entire, simple, way of life including our religious beliefs, physical safety, and livelihood," said the 15-page handwritten letter. "Our religious beliefs are derived from the Old and New Testaments-the Word of God-and are rooted in a deep reverence for pacifism, which would be shattered by the continued presence of military bombers in the skies."

Citing instances of youth and animals injured or killed when horses and cattle became spooked, the Amish leaders wrote, "We are very fearful that the sudden appearance of loud, low-flying bombers will cause many horses to be unmanageable for even the strongest and most skilled among us. The potential for fatal, simultaneous accidents throughout the corridors is horrifying."

Opposition to the ANG proposal has been "overwhelming," according to Marilyn Leys of the Citizens United coalition. Dozens of cities, villages, townships, counties, and school districts in Wisconsin and Iowa have joined the Amish, Ho-Chunk Nation, and farm, church, and environmental groups in adopting resolutions against the expansion.

"We're trying to find ways to provide more localized, realistic training for our air crews," said Capt. David Olson of the Wisconsin National Guard.

But Retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, director of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, contends that with modern weapons technology, low-level flying "is no longer a valid tactic." Low-level training proposals are still in vogue because "it's fun for the pilots" and it's "a budget builder."

Nancy and Jack Hobbs have decided to put their farm up for sale and try their dream in another state. "If C-130s do this to my animals now, what do you think F16s going up to 600 miles an hour, flying 150 feet off the ground, will do? I'm not going to live in a military war zone, and that's what this is."

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the ANG proposal is due out this spring. Citizens United will be ready, said activist Steve O'Donnell, with its own EIS and expert witnesses.

"We're ready to take them all the way to the courts if we need to," he said.

"We won't compromise. We won't accept any expansion of the bombing range and creation of new air corridors. How much more of America do you have to destroy in order to save it?"

TOM BOSWELL is a free-lance writer and photographer in Madison, Wisconsin, as well as a long-time community organizer.

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