Army shelves helicopter training plan near the PCT

Trail threats come in many forms and the PCTA staff is constantly on the lookout for new ones. Typically threats come from plans to log or develop property near the PCT. So we were a bit surprised last summer when the U.S. Army proposed night helicopter exercises along the trail in the North Cascades.


Photo by U.S. Army

Most of us understand that our military needs to train flight crews and practice troop deployment and rescue. But right along a National Scenic Trail? Are we willing to accept Apache, Black-Hawk and Chinook helicopters flying close to the ground or landing near where hikers and horseback riders are expecting a peaceful experience?

The answer is that we are not. I’m happy to report that this major threat to the trail has been averted for now. This reversal comes in large part to the response of the community. The Army received more than 2,000 comments from local residents and outdoor enthusiasts. Your voices certainly mattered in this case.

Here’s the back story: Last spring Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) published its proposed plan to move its high-altitude helicopter training program from Colorado to Washington. The principal motivation was to reduce costs. Local training sites would save hours of time, fuel and equipment wear and tear. Many of these landing zones were to be in the high points of the North Cascades. The goal was to provide training in a landscape that is similar to terrain found in Afghanistan. The Army was seeking “…permission to let helicopters touch down at seven mountain locations, with four sites in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, two on the eastern edge of Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and one east of North Cascades National Park.”


Photo by U.S. Army

The PCTA first caught wind of the proposal last July through a partner organization. The Army never formally notified us. So we had only 20 days to study the plan and develop a response. The plan called for flights very near North Cascades National Park, right up to the wilderness boundary and over the PCT between Rainy and Hart’s passes. It was unsettling to learn that the plan allowed these flights every day of the year except on national holidays, with no restrictions on the time of day and no requirement to notify the public. Also alarming was the need to include flights as low as 25 feet above tree line. But most disturbing was the fact that there would be a focus on night missions. Needless to say, we were quite alarmed. We realized that we had to do our best to discourage the Army from invading your sanctuary in the North Cascades.

In 1970, Congress established the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires U.S. government agencies to perform an environmental review of all projects on public land. This can be a simple evaluation that determines that other projects meeting similar criteria have been well researched and found to be of no significant impact. At the other end of the spectrum are activities that potentially have significant impact and require a series of scientific and cultural studies. The Army’s proposal was subject to this more strict review, however, it exercised its right to do this review internally, which resulted in a closed-door process. This is why the PCTA was not directly informed of this proposal.


Photo by U.S. Army

Regardless, the PCTA presented a detailed response expressing our concerns as well as additional comments regarding a wide range of potential environmental impacts. In August, the Army posted a notice that the scoping period had been extended to the end of October. With additional time and an additional opportunity to comment, we dug more deeply into the proposal to broaden our response.

One proposed landing zone (MTA 4) was on the wilderness boundary and on a ridge just a mile west of and overlooking the trail. This landing zone raised a cascade of questions about the intense sound a troop-carrying Chinook helicopter might make in the middle of the night. Unlike the well-protected ears of the troops, hikers would be subjected to overhead flights as low as 25 feet and landings on the ridge. These could be repeated (touch and go landing practice) for hours or be copied by several flight crews. It’s also easy to imagine the uncontrollable reactions of livestock exposed to the noise from these flights. Not the experience Congress intended for this national scenic trail.


Admittedly less tangible, but of concern, was the potential intrusion to hikers seeking the well-acknowledged solitude found on the PCT. The sounds of industrialized landscapes are accepted in the city. These same sounds can be extremely disturbing when you’re out for a wilderness experience. At the pinnacle of this concern were the veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who regularly use hiking in wilderness settings as part of their therapy and reintroduction to civilian life. The noise they might have experienced, waking up to the sounds of war in the middle of the night, is not what they bargained for or deserve.

The PCTA requested a full environmental impact statement that included an analysis of the physiological, psychological and cultural issues noted above. For five months, the Army remained silent on the proposal. In early April, it announced that it suspended its plans to pursue helicopter training in the North Cascades.

The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington, reported: “Joint Base Lewis-McChord is putting a controversial helicopter training proposal back in the hangar while it looks for high-altitude sites in the state where its aviation crews can train without disrupting hikers and campers.”


Landing zone near mile 2600 of the PCT.

The article stated that the Army received 2,350 comments on its plan. Many of these were from residents of Leavenworth, Washington, and people in the outdoor recreation community. What a great example of how citizen engagement can be a powerful force in protecting the trail.

Although the threat is over, it could reappear elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. “The requirements are still there and we’re basically back to looking elsewhere,” Army spokesman Joe Piek said. Until the 1990s, the Army had permits to do this type of training in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southern Washington. The high-altitude sites in that forest are in Goat Rocks Wilderness and close to the PCT.

The mission of the PCTA is to protect, promote, and preserve the PCT and we’re constantly vigilant in an effort to identify and mitigate trail threats. When the time comes, those who love the PCT must be ready to speak up to prevent threats to the PCT experience. This is our line in the sand. We must protect the PCT for future generations of hikers and horseback riders.

Author: Bill Hawley

Bill Hawley is our North Cascades Regional Representative. He's in charge of the PCT from Rock Creek in southern Washington to the Canadian border. His regional office is located in North Bend, Wash. Bill was out hiking the PCT “back before it was the PCT,” and has been a life-long devotee. He was an active volunteer before joining staff.