Bombing range deal under scrutiny

Sharna Johnson

Recently elected state officials are taking a new look at the expansion of Melrose Bombing Range and it’s making some involved in the project a little nervous.

For four years, state, local and Air Force officials have been working on a deal to use $5 million capital outlay to purchase approximately 30,000 acres of mostly public trust land and some privately owned land around the existing bombing range.

The plan was to then give that land to the Air Force.

But Friday, Public Lands Commissioner Ray Powell said his staff is now working with officials to evaluate a lease option instead.

Powell said if a lease could be brokered, it means the entire lease payment would go into a state fund for public schools, the legal benefactor of the lands in question.

On the other hand, because of the way the law is written, if the land is sold, the proceeds are put in the state’s permanent fund and the public schools receive less than 6 percent per year.

In a lease arrangement, the $5 million gift to the Air Force would be used by the State Economic Development Department to make the lease payments to the land office, which would then put the money into the public schools fund.

“We’re all operating in good faith trying to find the best solution we can for all involved. The real winners are the taxpayers,” he said.

Powell said the governor’s office, the Air Force and members of the Curry County Commission are all in support of the proposed changes to the project and, “I think it’s going to be soon and I think it’s going to be done right.”

And though the governor ultimately holds the purse strings on the $5 million, Powell said his office believes the outlay is solid for at least another two years.

Gov. Susana Martinez is committed to seeing the project through, according to a statement released Friday that reads, in part: “Governor Martinez supports the expenditure, which has already been allocated by a previous session of the Legislature, for use at Cannon Air Force Base.

“The governor is currently working with representatives from Cannon, the Pentagon, and Curry County to ensure that these funds are used to address the priorities outlined by Air Force and county officials.”

But community members who have been working on the project since its inception four years ago are concerned a change this late in the game could collapse the deal.

“All of this sounds good on the surface. The worry I have is it’s taken (four years to get the deal almost finished) I hope new ideas don’t derail (the project),” said Randy Harris, president of the Bank of Clovis and member of the Committee of Fifty’s Washington Committee.

“It would be a terrible shame and a terrible loss if we’re not able to get it done. I’m all in favor of better deals, I just hope that everybody’s optimism turns into reality.”

Harris said he has been working on the project since it began in the interest of seeing the Air Force, and Cannon Air Force Base get the bombing range that weighed so heavily in the decision to keep the base open and bring in a special operations mission after it was recommended to be shuttered by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) Commission in 2005.

It’s been four years of environmental studies, appraisals, agreements and legal wrangling and each hurdle has been overcome, Harris said.

With a recently approved waiver from the Air Force on an issue of subsurface mineral rights, Harris said the deal is on the cusp of completion.

Committee of Fifty member Chad Lydick said he, too, is anxious that changes at this late juncture could doom the project.

“If it all gets worked out, that’s all well and good but there’s a risk involved and I just hope it works out,” he said.

“There’s always a risk involved with changing agreements… at the 11th hour. If everybody’s comfortable with the risk (that’s good). If things don’t work out, well then somebody needs to be responsible for that.”

And Lydick and Harris fear there is a move being made by county commissioners to get part of the money to close Curry Road R, which base officials have said poses a security risk because of its proximity to the base.

A January letter to Gov. Martinez from AF Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Philip Breedlove outlines completion of the project to expand the range as a “priority for the Air Force.”

“While Curry Road R creates some potential security concerns for the installation, more Air Force planning is required before we can move forward with a project to complete this road closure,” the letter states.

Tuesday, the Curry County Commission voted to use a $973,834 federal appropriation to pave an alternate route around CR R.

At the meeting Chairman Caleb Chandler said the move was made to pave the alternate route and alleviate traffic on CR R, but that closure was not being discussed with the commission’s vote.

Commissioner Wendell Bostwick said commissioners are aware of the letter, but are still of the understanding that local command at Cannon has not changed its position and still feels closing the road is a priority.

“(The Air Force and local command have) two different agendas and I’m not saying either one of them’s wrong,” Bostwick said.

“My job as a commissioner is to take care of the issues that affect the well-being of the citizens of Curry County while supporting the U.S. Air Force in whatever they need.”

Bostwick said he and Chandler have been working with the governor’s office and the land commissioner on both issues and it’s his understanding there could be enough money to expand the range and possibly a phase of the CR R project.

Lydick said trying to pay for the two projects out of the same pot of money worries him, especially when the Pentagon has said CR R isn’t ready to go forward.

“The deal’s ready to be consummated. Curry Road R is not important, why would we want to endanger (range expansion)?” he asked. “It may come off just fine but you take the risk of it all caving in.”

Bostwick said the bombing range has been called the “crown jewel of the Air Force” and the community has to do what it can to help make sure its future is secure, but at the same time, Cannon — which has its own mission with special operations — has to be secured and if command says CR R is critical then that has to be taken care of, too.

“It’s really, really sad that we’ve got our community pulling in two different directions,” he said. “Both of them (the Air Force and Cannon) have their mission.”

The 66,000-acre bombing range is located 25 miles west of Cannon near Melrose and is used for training by Cannon and other air bases.

The Air Force Public Affairs office in Washington D.C. was contacted for comment but said a statement would not be available until this week.