Air Force sued for records on airspace expansion over Arizona wilderness

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the United States Air Force
in federal court Friday, seeking public records related to its proposal
to expand military training operations over millions of acres of
sensitive wilderness in southeast Arizona and Southwest New Mexico.

The center requested eight categories of documents related to the plan,
which would expand the types of flights allowed in 10 different
military operation areas, in December 2022. According to the center in
its lawsuit, the Air Force has not responded to its requests beyond asking that the center pay $61,000 for the requested documents.

for the conservation group say the plan to authorize low-level fighter
jet maneuvers and supersonic flights in the ten airspaces across the
Southwest would pollute rural and tribal communities, national monuments
and conservation areas, namely the Gila Wilderness, Apache-Sitgreaves
National Forest and other areas of southern Arizona.

The proposal
would permit flights as low as 100 feet from the ground, allow the
dropping of flares as low as 2,000 feet from the ground and authorize
the release of aluminum-coated silica fibers known as “chaff” — a
radiofrequency countermeasure used to scramble enemy radar.
Conservationists say it will increase risk to wildlife while endangering
both the environment and public health. 

Depending on the
alternative the Air Force chooses, the proposal may also lower the limit
for supersonic flights from 10,000 feet to only 5,000 feet, splitting
the distance between blaring sonic booms and the ears of animals and
humans alike.

“These deafening flights pose a serious threat to
the people and animals who call these remote wildlands home,” Trisha
Sharma, a legal fellow at the center said in a Friday press release.
“Jets thundering overhead create health problems for people and harm
imperiled animals, so it’s disappointing that the Air Force has gone
radio silent in providing this crucial information.”

The Air Force
says on its website that the limitations placed on the military
operation areas lack the capacity for pilots to simulate real-world
combat, in which they would fly much lower and faster than current
regulations allow. It says a pilot must be able to practice “terrain
masking” — the use of mountains, trees and other geographic features to
hide an aircraft from enemies — and low altitude escapes to ensure
survival in combat situations. 

Among other categories, the center
requested data supporting the Air Force’s claim that current
regulations are insufficient for proper training. Other types of records
it requested include missions, operational plans and training
exercises, along with studies, maps and planning records, noise and
disturbance complaints against the three bases using the operation
areas, records of all public comments submitted in response to the Air
Force’s environmental impact statement and mapped locations of
designated avoidance areas within the operation areas.

Luke Air
Force Base, in Phoenix’s West Valley, responded to the request three
months after it was filed in late 2022, according to the center, and
didn’t agree to waive the hefty fee originally imposed until January

An email from the base in September 2023 notified the center
that its fee waiver was denied “on the basis that the requester has not
demonstrated that its requested release will make a significant
contribution to the public’s understanding of government operations or

After agreeing to waive the fee, Luke Air Force Base
officials told the center that they couldn’t provide an estimated
completion date due to the high volume of records requested. Instead, it
agreed to provide weekly updates on the progress of the request, but
only actually sent seven as of Friday, 16 months after the request was

“The Air Force has been shockingly uncooperative every step
of the way, even though the public has a right to this information,”
Sharma said in the press release. “Air Force officials should do the
right thing and give people the info they need to understand what might
happen to the places they live.”

The center brings claims for
violations of the Freedom of Information Act for the failure to respond
to and fill the records request by the federally established due dates.
It asks that a federal judge declare the Air Force in violation of the
act and require the production of all records relevant to the request.

captain at Luke Air Force base declined to comment on the lawsuit. Air
Force headquarters in Washington D.C. didn’t return a phone call for