Local government officials are weighing ways to allow energy development without infringing on needed security response and communications at Malmstrom Air Force Base’s 165 missile sites.
Government officials, landowners and wind energy developers held a brainstorming session Tuesday morning at the Cascade County commission chambers to discuss potential problems and solutions suggested in the final draft of the Malmstrom Joint Land Use Study, or JLUS.
But it was another topic not directly addressed in the $220,000 study’s recommendations that drew the liveliest discussion: how to help the military greatly expand its easements or buffer zones around the 150 missile silos and 15 missile alert facilities while finding a way to compensate landowners and developers.
The study by Matrix Design Group shied away from that issue.
Funded primarily with a grant from the Defense Department’s Office of Economic Adjustment, it studied a variety of potential conflicts, such as building structures and cell or wind towers too close to missile sites.
Such conflicts could encroach on base activities by creating electromagnetic “noise” that could interfere with the military’s vital microwave communications, Cascade County Commissioner Joe Briggs said. And their physical presence could hamper military security crew efforts to land by helicopter and respond quickly to signals of possible intrusion.
One recommendation popular with folks at the meeting called for developing a color-coded map of missile sites. Like a traffic signal, it could show green areas open to development, yellow ones with some potential issues and red ones in which development would be frowned on unless mitigating steps were taken.
When missile sites were installed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Air Force paid for 1,200-foot easements around them, Briggs said. Farmers deliberately avoided building within the easements.
More recently, when missile supporters introduced a bill at the 2009 Legislature allowing outlying counties to do land-use planning near missile sites, Air Force officials said they would rather have an expanded 3,900-foot buffer around the missile sites. The Air Force felt it needed more room because of current security threats and ways to defend against them, Briggs said.
But legislators and outlying commissioners made it clear landowners couldn’t be asked to give up more use of their land without compensation, Briggs said.
During Tuesday’s brainstorming session, Briggs and others discussed compromise measures.
Consultants estimated that 10 percent to 12 percent of Malmstrom missile sites, or up to 20, might have potential conflict issues within a broader 3,900-foot zone.
Briggs suggested a further study to pinpoint the sites with the worst potential conflicts and exploring ways to compensate landowners and developers for preserving such sites for military use.
Ideas included getting financial support from organizations that buy easements to keep land in agricultural production, asking the state Legislature to pitch in to keep Malmstrom’s missiles intact or increasing the impact fees charged to developers, including wind farms, to offset issues they cause.
Van Jamison, vice president of Gaelectric, advocated taking pro-active steps to head off potential conflicts ahead of time.
The Irish-owned company has secured 250,000 acres of private land for 12 separate wind farm developments in Montana, some near missile sites, he said.
Jamison said his company would not mind making minor adjustments ahead of time, such as moving a planned wind turbine, but would resist major adjustments in areas in which it had made substantial investments in land purchases, environmental reports and reservations of capacity on transmission lines.
Substantial changes once the plans were in place could be very expensive to the company, reduce landowner royalties and even kill a project, he said.
“We’re more than happy to work with folks ahead of time,” he said, adding that Gaelectric has already adjusted plans to meet Malmstrom concerns.
Briggs said area officials have time to sort out the issue since the Air Force still is deciding how to eliminate 50 Minuteman III missiles at three Air Force bases.
It’s expected the Air Force will remove 15 to 20 of the 150 missiles that Malmstrom, F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo., and Minot AFB, N.D., each have, Briggs said. That option is popular politically and would help the Air Force cross-train missile folks, he said.
But because of the way missile systems are set up, the Air Force could save more money by eliminating a squadron of 50 missiles at one of the bases rather than trimming smaller portions at all three, he said.
It’s possible some of Malmstrom missiles sites that have potential conflicts with development will be removed by the Air Force, eliminating the room to expand those buffer zones, he said.
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