Military Airspace and Public Lands
On a spring afternoon in 1959, a sudden explosion shook the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument visitor station near the US–Mexico border in southwestern Arizona, where chief ranger John Mullany sat working at his desk. He hesitated—mining operations nearby often set off detonations. But 15 minutes later, Mullaney heard another thud, and then a second explosion. He grabbed administrative assistant Jack Hay and left the building. The two men drove down highway 85 for three miles until rising smoke came into view. They parked the car and hiked a short distance to find charred earth where a fighter jet had crashed. Only small pieces of the aircraft were visible. No one could have survived, and they hoped the pilot had ejected safely. Within the hour, a large US Air Force helicopter passed over them, then looped back 15 minutes later to land as the afternoon sun sunk toward the horizon. The helicopter pilot directed them to guard the scene until air police arrived that evening. Such crashes, rare compared to the military training flights that traversed the national monument’s skies, demonstrate how overlapping air use and management put federal agencies at odds with one another.
Conflicts over military airspace illustrate how large areas of public land in the American West offered crucial resources for the US empire, bringing environmental and military mandates into conflict with one another and subjecting rural populations to a distinct kind of noise pollution. The rapid expansion of military airspace in the 1970s drew protest and created a point of contention between the National Park Service and defense agencies. At the same time, nascent environmental legislation offered new terms for managing the air as a natural resource. The sweeping 1970 Clean Air Act (CAA) was foundational to the modern environmental movement, but Congress also passed lesser-known legislation in the following decade to protect silence as a natural resource. But while the 1970 CAA did much to reduce particulate matter, noise pollution proved more difficult to manage. Noise pollution is often associated with urban and industrial sites, but military airspace overlying protected lands in rural areas reveals that imperial priorities trumped the environmental protections that aimed to protect Americans from noise pollution.
More than 20 years before Mullany and Hay encountered the crashed fighter jet, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set aside large swaths of the Sonoran desert as the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Cabeza Prieta Game Range, encouraged by conservation advocates in the Tucson region. Placing the land in public domain, however, did not guarantee the preservation of its air. Shortly thereafter, the Air Force began to train pilots for World War II on the outskirts of Phoenix and Tucson. Bases established to train pilots in wartime continued to command training flights in the 1960s as the United States competed with the Soviet Union in weapons development and global power. Fighter pilots flew through the Luke Air Force Gunnery Range, later renamed the Barry M. Goldwater Range, dropping bombs over nearly two million acres between Yuma and Tucson.
Fighter jets increasingly overflew Organ Pipe at low altitudes and supersonic speeds, terrifying park visitors.
The bombing range included different airspaces. It skirted the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and bordered the western edge of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The gunnery range abutted the Sells Military Operating Airspace, which overlaid both the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Tohono O’odham Nation. Fighter jets rarely crashed on the monument, but they increasingly overflew Organ Pipe at low altitudes and supersonic speeds, terrifying park visitors. Residents, ranchers, and the Tohono O’odham Nation experienced similar aerial harassment from low-altitude military exercises flown from Williams, Luke, and Davis Monthan Air Force bases.
By 1966, complaints drove Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall to initiate an investigation into overflights above public lands. Complaints continued, but the Air Force dropped flights lower to the ground. John Higgins described being overflown by a fighter jet as he led hiking groups through Organ Pipe National Monument. He wrote to the Air Force’s Environmental Planning Division, complaining about being buzzed on the highway and saying he saw one jet herding horses on the Tohono O’odham Nation.
As local protests continued, a revolution in environmental policy was changing the American landscape. The 1969 National Environmental Policy Act mandated that all federal agencies account for their environmental impacts. It also ushered in sweeping legislation that defined natural resources and their management at the national level for the first time in US history. The 1970 CAA, for example, created national air quality standards and regulated certain particulates, but clarity was not the only resource hewn from the atmosphere. With aviation rapidly growing, Congress recognized excessive noise nationwide. In 1972, the Noise Control Act made soundwaves a measurable nuisance for the first time and established Americans’ right to live free from excessive sound. It empowered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to coordinate federal agencies and research and require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to establish rules and regulations for aviation noise.
As nascent environmental protections sought to regulate noise, aviation technology advanced, producing jets capable of low-altitude tactical maneuvers and supersonic speeds. Air Force bases in southern Arizona acquired new A-10 attack jets in 1976 and the Air Force dropped the flight ceiling above Organ Pipe National Monument from 1,000 feet to just 300 feet above ground. Yet to comply with environmental mandates, the Air Force had to initiate research into low-altitude airspace. It studied sonic booms and noise pollution and shared the results in public hearings before submitting an environmental impact statement (EIS) to the EPA. The Air Force shared a draft of its EIS for the Sells Airspace in 1976. Indigenous communities, ranchers, elected officials, and Department of the Interior agencies issued a slew of complaints and participated in public hearings. The EPA declared the report inadequate, and the Air Force spent a full decade compiling materials to revise it.
Despite decades of protests, the military continued to use the area for training flights due to its rural nature.
Preserving public lands prevented some terrestrial activity therein, but they also offered a new military proving ground as the Air Force expanded its airspace. The potential for the Clean Air or Noise Control Acts to preserve air in national monuments went unmet. By 1980, the superintendent of Organ Pipe, Harold Smith, replied to letters from concerned visitors explaining the history of overflight protests. Smith explained that the FAA was responsible for airspace and that the Park Service had worked with visitors for years to reduce overflights and sonic booms in the national monument. They reported these flights to the Air Force, but eventually stopped tracking them after they saw no change. Despite decades of protests, the military continued to use the area for training flights due to its rural nature. When the Air Force submitted its final EIS on the Sells Airspace in 1986, the EPA found the final report inadequate. Nonetheless, the Air Force continued military flight operations over the national monument and the Tohono O’odham Nation, though they acknowledged that communities experienced significant impacts to daily life and promised to raise the flight ceilings in certain places.
By the time the Air Force completed its study of the Sells Airspace, it controlled 126 low-altitude military operating areas, 88 low-altitude restricted airspaces, and 599 low-altitude routes. Low-altitude airspace alone covered one-third of US landmass and disproportionately affected rural communities in the West. If protecting large areas of public lands prevented certain terrestrial developments, these sparsely populated homelands and fragile ecosystems offered a growing military proving ground by 1986. In the Sonoran Desert, sonic booms, fighter jet crashes, and low-altitude maneuvers punctured desert silence while federal land management promoted its preservation. Protests continued into the 21st century, but US air power retained its primacy over environmental protections. The case for national defense trumped local concerns with relative ease in the rural west.
Alyssa Kreikemeier is a public historian and postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico, where she is working on a history of Bandelier National Monument. She held the AHA Fellowship in Aerospace History in 2021–22.
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