How Low Can They Go?

Untouched by the last glacier, southwestern Wisconsin is hilly, wooded and wild—home to Old Order Amish, back-to-the land homesteaders and third-generation dairy farmers. On weekends, tourists from Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis come to canoe the picturesque and crooked Kickapoo River.

Last year, this serene scene was threatened when the Air National Guard (ANG) announced plans to expand military training flights in the area. Since 1954, the federal government has been leasing county forest land from Wisconsin for a military bombing range. But the ANG proposal called for expanding the bombing range at Volk Field (80 miles northwest of Madison), creating two new low-level flight corridors in Wisconsin and Iowa, and increasing the use of an existing corridor running west into Minnesota.

Local residents and governmental officials—including Wisconsin’s two U.S. Senators—banded together to protest the military intrusion, saying that the flight corridors would interrupt the largest migratory bird flyway in North America, which lies at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, and the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge.

In April, the grassroots campaigning proved successful when the ANG announced it was scrapping plans for the low-level flight corridors, citing the presence of migratory bird routes, recreational areas, airports and population centers as influencing the decision. But ANG still plans to increase the bombing range by purchasing 6,000 more acres of county forest, as well as 1,000 acres of private land, doubling the range size to 16,000 acres.

“We can’t drop our guard for a minute,” says Pat Conway, who lives near the banks of the Kickapoo and is the founder of the Coalition for Peaceful Skies. She says that if the Guard is successful in expanding the range, the low-level flight corridors will follow despite what ANG says. “They want to bring F-16s from all over the country to practice here,” says Charlotte O’Brien, a local resident.

The Ho-Chunk Indian Nation, which operates day care, senior centers and a casino near the range also opposes the expansion. “Already our school children hit the floor in panic when the bombers approach the range so low and loud,” says Ona Whitewing Garvin, a Ho-Chunk legislator. “Can you image the horrific impact on them and all forms of life if the range is expanded and flights increased?”