November 30, 1992 12:00 PM

AT THE NADA HERMITAGE IN SOUTHERN Colorado, nestled at the base of the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains, peace and quiet are the fabric of everyday life. An adobe chapel watches over 16 huts scattered across the desert floor where 11 Carmelite monks pass their days in prayer. Located near tiny Crestone, Colo.—also home to a Native American center and a Zen center—and 15 miles from the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, this is God’s country, a place where the major industry is silence.

Now there is trouble in paradise. The sounds of silence have been riven by an ungodly racket created by the Colorado Air National Guard. For almost two decades the Guard has used the skies above the San Luis Valley as one of three training areas in the state. But after November 1993, when a new Denver airport is scheduled to open, two of the areas will be closed to make way for anticipated heavier traffic.

As a result the Guard wants to consolidate its training over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in a single “military operation area” (MOA) still referred to as the Red Eye Complex but now called the Colorado Air Space Initiative. Plans call for mock dogfights and large-scale combat exercises that could involve up to 100 flights a day for as many as 24 days a year—in effect placing the peace-seeking monks and their few neighbors squarely in the eye of a domestic Desert Storm.

“It’s bad enough when they fly at 500 feet,” says Father David Levin, 44, who as subprior is second in command at the Hermitage. “You can live with that and the current rate of flyovers. But with the increased flights and dogfights in the Red Eye proposal, we won’t be able to survive as a retreat center. And what it will do to destroy monastery could be fatal.”

The son of Hollywood director Harry (Where the Boys Are) Levin and a convert from Judaism, Father Levin remembers his first “close encounter” with an F-16. shortly after his group arrived in 1982. “It was when we were building the library,” he says. “I heard this incredible noise, and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, the building’s going to fall down.’ I ran outside and saw another jet flying over. The pilot was so low I could see him in the cockpit, and it was so loud that I threw myself down on the ground. It was that frightening.”

For years, says Kate Steichen, 45, cofounder of Open Space Alliance—the organization opposing Red Eye—the citizens of Crestone complained about the school and the golf course being “mock-strafed” or cattle being buzzed. In nearby Moffat, says Steichen, people reported seeing a jet fly under the power lines.

But complaining, says Crestone horse trainer Julie Goodnight, 33, “was a pointless exercise” because no one knew where to direct their grievances. Then in the summer of 1991 the community got wind of the Red Eye Complex, and resistance stiffened.

For his part, Maj. Buck Buckingham, the current Colorado Air National Guard Air Space Manager, says the new Dunes MOA is “vital” to keeping his 39 Guard pilots “on Top of the latest technology.” He says that the Guard, as a result of meeting with Steichen and others, has already made adjustments to its plans. “At the beginning,” says Buckingham, “we said we’d fly at 100 feel. Well, it’s now 500 feet. And we said we were going to drop chaff [a silica and aluminum substance used for confusing weapons guidance systems and an environmental pollutant], and now we’re not ever going to do that in this slate.

“I have to make sure,” continues Buckingham, “that I have the best airspace for the fighters to train. The best airspace, according to Kate, is not in her backyard but in someone else’s. We’re trying to work with them, but to say they don’t want us here at all, that’s not helping much.”

This month, in response to pressure brought by protestors and legislators, engineers hired by the Guard began studying the environmental impact of the proposed overflights. Father Levin, meanwhile, is also seeking help elsewhere. “Prayer is my profession,” he says. “We’re asking God for divine intervention in the hearts of those in charge of the Colorado Air Guard and beyond.”

WILLIAM PLUMMER

VICKIE BANE in Crestone

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