Havre Daily News
The plan to build a training range for the Montana Air National Guard in north-central Montana was put on hold after the Fort Belknap Indian Community tribal council voted to end its participation in the project.
"This kind of came as a shock," said Lt. Col. Bill Schulz, project manager for the training range. "When that kind of wears off, we'll have to see where we're at."
Schulz said military officials need to regroup and assess the level of support - particularly financial - for the project. He said federal support for the project was due in part because of the involvement of the reservation.
Darrell Martin, vice chair of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council, said several issues led to the council voting to end participation in the project. The council voted 6-2 last Wednesday, with two absent, to pull its support of the project, which the Air National Guard decided to locate in Blaine County in 2002.
"Some of the council didn't have all of the information they should have had to make a reasonable decision," Martin said.
The council initially thought the lease of reservation land would be for 25 years, and that the majority of employees of the range would be American Indian, Martin said. Recent information from the Guard indicated the lease would be for 30 years, and that the jobs would be contracted out and might not go to Indians, he said.
Schulz said nothing has changed. The plan was to operate the training range for 25 years, with the lease running a few years longer to allow construction of the range and its dismantling, he said.
The jobs at the base were to be offered locally, and probably many would have been filled by Indians, he said. He never guaranteed how many would be Indian, he added.
"We never said that. From Day One we said we're hiring from the local community, whether they're white or Indian," Schulz said.
Schulz said he doesn't know why the council withdrew its support. Several council members who had supported the range suddenly changed their minds, he said.
"It mainly came down to tribal politics, if you want my personal opinion on it," Schulz said.
The U.S. Air Force wanted to build a practice bombing range to be used mostly by the Air National Guard's 120th Fighter Wing, based in Great Falls, about a 15-minute flight from the range.
The 120th Fighter Wing now trains in Idaho and Utah. But getting there from Great Falls can take nearly an hour, leaving little training time, Schulz said.
The range, in the southeast corner of Blaine County, would have been about 55 percent tribal land with the remainder a mixture of federal, state and private land. It would have been a 3-by-5-mile area with a target area of about one square mile, and would have required restricted airspace.
The range would have been used for training pilots using nonexplosive munitions and practice bullets.
Schulz said in an interview in 2002 that practice ranges typically have about 10 to 12 workers, with two military personnel and the rest usually civil service personnel or contracted workers.
Schulz said Tuesday that when the site was selected, another site near Malta ranked nearly as high for suitability. A primary reason the Blaine County site was selected was because of its location on the reservation and the U.S. Air Force's desire to work more closely with American Indians, he said.
"We'll press on and see whence and where we go with Malta," Schulz said.
Phillips County Commissioner Richard Dunbar said today that Tuesday was the first the County Commission had heard that the Air Force was going to take another look at the Malta area. The commission would support having the range there, depending on whether the local landowners are for it, he said.
"It could be up to 10 to 12 jobs and local people that would get the jobs. That would be great for the local economy," he added. "We were supportive of it when they were through a couple of years ago."
He said he doesn't think the noise caused by a training range would be a problem. Demonstrations done several years ago when the Air Force was looking at sites showed the noise wouldn't be extreme, he said.
Don Swenson, a Blaine County commissioner, said county officials want to see if anything can be done to keep the project local.
''I'd really love to keep it in the county,'' he said.
Martin said the tribal council is always concerned about the loss of potential economic growth, but it has other responsibilities.
"We also have a moral obligation to the people and the land, and I don't think you can put a price on that," he said.
Information from The Associated Press was used for this story.