By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Fort Belknap Indian Community Council has reversed a decision not to pursue an Air National Guard training range on the reservation, but the Guard said it may be too late.
Darrell Martin, vice chair of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council, said today that the council supports creating the range, because of the economic improvements it would bring.
"The economics had to be looked at a little closer and how it impacts our people," he said.
Council members had voted 6-2 last month to end planning with the Guard for the project, Martin said at the time. He said today the March vote was a nonbinding committee vote and needed to be ratified by the full council.
The council voted 5-4, with one member absent, on April 7 to continue supporting building the range, he said.
The U.S. Air Force decided in 2002 to try to build the range on Fort Belknap. After the March vote by the council, the National Guard opened negotiations in Phillips County, its second choice, to locate the range there, Lt. Col. Bill Schulz, manager of the project, said Monday.
"I think in all fairness we need to let the process run its course," he said.
Now that those discussion have begun, the Fort Belknap site will be a backup, he said.
Schulz said Congress was deciding in March what requests to fund. "When that (vote) came out, this got dropped like a hot potato," he said.
The Fort Belknap vote in March delayed construction by a year, Schulz said. If the Air National Guard is ready to start building next year, the funding request will be made again, he said.
Schulz said the estimated cost of building the site on Fort Belknap was $11 million. Much of that was due to a lack of roads, he said, and the construction in Phillips County is likely to be less.
Schulz said the range will probably employ about seven civilians and a control officer, who could be a member of the military, a retired member of the military or a qualified civilian.
The U.S. Air Force wants to build the 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 proposed Montana sites.
The range will be used by pilots training with nonexplosive munitions and practice bullets.
Martin said that when the committee looked at the terms of building the site, members were concerned that no jobs were guaranteed for American Indians. When the full council looked at the question, it decided the lack of a guarantee did not justify ending support for the project, he said.
The reservation is in great need of jobs, and the economic development the training range would bring would help, he said.
"We're looking at 65 percent unemployment," Martin added.
He said other projects are helping reduce unemployment, but more are needed.