NEW BOSTON — The grounds of the New Boston Air Force Station, a World War II bombing range that is active as a satellite tracking station, are expansive, and the U.S. Air Force will tell you the area rivals any state park in beauty. But only Department of Defense cardholders and their families can experience the place.
And that continues to frustrate some veterans, who say they used to be able to hunt and fish on the property but cannot any longer.
One veteran is now enlisting the help of U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen, both of whom sit on the Veterans Affairs Committee. The senators said they will pursue the issue of accessibility at the NBAFS.
In a joint statement, officials from the senators' offices said the two “are committed to working with Pentagon officials to ensure that the facility is as accessible as possible, as safety and national security concerns allow, for all citizens who are serving or have served honorably in our military.”
The tracking station covers 2,826 acres, about 1,321 acres of which were surface-cleared for exposed unexploded ordnance, with seven water body and wetland areas that are off-limits. The station is home to about 150 species, including birds, deer, bear, moose, bobcats, fish, otter and most species of bats reported in the state. It is forested with Eastern white pine, Northern red oak and Eastern hemlock, and offers 46 camp sites scattered around four ponds.
Tennis courts and recreational vehicle storage facilities are also available.
The Air Force announced this spring that it would be reopening the area to DoD cardholders, civilians and military. and their family and friends can get a pass of their own. The designation includes retired military who gave at least 20 years of service.
Veteran Ned Brooks, a clerk at the American Legion in Concord, said he used to hunt at the NBAFS in the 1980s.
“It was good deer hunting up there too,” Brooks said.
But when the area was closed down, he asked no questions.
“No one really said anything, and I just respected that the land was posted. It said, 'Military Reservation Stay Off,' so I stayed out.”
He said he's upset that retired military can access the land and veterans cannot.
“I think it stinks,” Brooks said. “First of all. a veteran raises his hand the same way every other person did and says 'I do,' and they did their duty. What's the difference?”
“So I didn't put in 20 years,” Brooks said. “What's right is right. Let's stop singling people out.”
Brooks, an Air Force veteran who served from 1962 to 1965, said he hopes the senators can help.
“I'm (asking the senators) what the story is on it. Is it open? And who's it open to? And am I eligible? I'll give them my service dates and we'll go from there.”
For Dick Gamache and Jean Gregoire, hunting and fishing at the New Boston Air Force Station were perks they've earned by serving their country, they said.
“Telling the people who served their country that they can't use the base, but the civilians who work there can, is a slap in the face. If they had applied this (closure) fairly across the board, we would have nothing to complain about,” Gregoire said.
In an email, Lt. Col. Cary Belmear, operations officer at the station, filtered a series of questions through Air Force leadership in Colorado. Belmeare said unexploded ordnance can pose threats decades after they were dropped.
“Safety is one of our top concerns,” the letter said, “which is why it was closed for recreation until the area was surface- or sub-surface cleared.
“Upon completion of the surface clearance, we evaluated the safety risks associated with opening certain areas up to recreation. (This) gave us the confidence to re-open the formerly closed areas for surface-only recreation. The goal has always been to reopen the area for recreational activities once the UXO remediation was concluded.”
Air Force officials refused to say why the area is considered safe for DoD cardholders and their families but not for veterans or the public.
If you're not military or family of someone in the military, don't try to get in.
In 1959, the 6594th Instrumentation Squadron was activated at the station. Satellite support operations began in 1960, using van-mounted equipment while permanent buildings were being constructed. By 1964, dual-satellite tracking, telemetry and command capabilities were operating in permanent facilities.
In March 1972 it was announced that Grenier Field in Manchester would close that September. Support facilities including base supply, transportation, fire protection and civil engineering were moved to the New Boston station. In addition to bombing activities, training and maneuver activities were performed on the property from 1956 until 2002, when the range closed.
Between 1942 and 1956 the station was used as an aerial bombardment range for two nearby air bases. From 1960 to 1998, much of the wooded areas and bodies of water were opened for recreational purposes. But in 2008 it was closed again due to unexploded ordnance found during field work.
In May 2011 it was opened to individuals who work at the station, and it was announced in May of this year that it would reopen to DoD cardholders.
Visitors wanting to hunt, snowmobile or camp must attend a UXO safety class, held each month, before being permitted to enter the area. Entry is free, though permits are required for hunting, fishing and logging.
From the fall of 2008 to the summer of 2009, explosions were audible from around the station. In September of that year, Jeffrey Oja, the station's restoration program manager, told the New Hampshire Union Leader that they had succeeded in clearing scraps and live ordnance from a 1,200-acre field that had been used for bomb practice.
The station's neighbors
When Mont Vernon Fire Chief Jay Wilson would go fishing with his father at the New Boston Air Force Tracking Station, he remembers having to use bobbers.
“It was common sense,” he said. The World War II-era bomb rage was littered with unexploded ordnance; if a fishing hook were to sink too far, the potential consequences were well-known. His father served in the Air Force.
“I'm happy that it's there,” said Wilson. “I'd rather have a military installation next to me than a sewer treatment plant.”
Mont Vernon Conservation Commissioner Earle Rich said most people have no problem with the base. Some people regret not being able to climb to the top of Joe English Hill, but that's about all, he said. Rich said it's well-protected land from a conservation standpoint.
He recalled a rare American chestnut tree on the station that had not succumbed to the blight that kills most of the trees before they reach maturity.
Fellow Conservation Commissioner Jim Bird agreed. “It keeps sort of a spotting ground for the deer and beaver and bear, and the wild turkeys that are all over. It's not going to get much better than this. I'm sure we'd love to go in there and use it, but I'm sure the critters are pleased that those pesky humans aren't in there.”
The commission members agreed that the area is full of places for outdoor recreation, such as the town-owned Lamson Farm in Mont Vernon. Bird said there are already 5,000 to 6,000 protected acres nearby.
“The one annoyance,” Bird said, “and it's probably a good thing, is that that (station) adds probably another 15 minutes to the drive from Manchester to Mont Vernon.”