An area near scenic Aravaipa Canyon could become a training and testing hub for the firearms, emergency response, defense and aerospace industries.

The proposed weapons testing and first-responder training project in remote Graham County — an area known for its bighorn sheep, steep cliffs and stately cottonwoods — promises jobs for an economically stressed area and a boost for the state’s aerospace industry. But neighbors are balking, saying they want to preserve the area’s peace, ranching and wildlife.

Scottsdale-based Force Options 360 Tactical Training LLC says its project will also offer a place for the aerospace industry to test and assemble weapon and civilian hardware components. It’s seeking government approval to put up some buildings and run open-air training and testing operations at two sites: on 3,200 acres of the 21,000-acre Cross F Ranch in the Klondyke area 50 miles west of Safford, and on 700 acres 10 miles southwest of Safford.

The company has loaded its governing board with military heavyweights with backgrounds ranging from Middle East warfare to private military and corporate security firms. But winning approval may not be easy.

In addition to neighbors’ objections, Force Options has had more than one stumble already: A U.S. senator requested that a statement that sounded like an endorsement be removed from its promotional materials, and Raytheon Missile Systems denied interest in using the sites — despite Force Options officials’ statements to the contrary.

Force Options says its facilities give Arizona’s aerospace and military-related companies a place to test hardware without having to go out of state or wait up to 18 months to test at the Yuma Proving Grounds or the Goldwater Range in Arizona.

“This is all about public safety education. We cater to first responders and the disaster relief industry,” said Ernest Mennes, Force Options’ managing member. Also, the company can serve the state’s 1,200 aerospace businesses, Mennes said.

“They make parts and components,” he said. “We need to be able to test these components.”

But rural residents fear the projects will disturb cattle and wildlife with noise and traffic. Residents are skeptical of company statements that only small-caliber weapons will be tested. They fear that once the project is approved by Graham County, the company will do whatever it wants.

Neighboring ranch owner Kathy Sergent can’t help but note the irony of weapons testing proposed at a time when wildlife agencies are looking to protect wildlife corridors.

“It’s going to change the climate of Klondyke. It’s beautiful here — there’s the Galiuro Wilderness, the Santa Teresa Wilderness and the Aravaipa Wilderness,” said Sergent, who with her husband has a ranch bordering Force Option’s Cross F site.

The backgrounds of some company executives and board members have raised questions about the scope of Force Options’ planned operations. Company officials include two retired brigadier generals, Craig Nixon of the Army, Mark Beesley, a retired brigadier general in the Air Force, as well as Jeffrey Prather, a former U.S. Army special forces soldier and defense intelligence and drug enforcement agent.

Nixon and board member Terrell McCombs are listed in company materials as officials of Constellis Holdings. That company’s subsidiaries include Academi, a firm known for its work in security operations for the military and private business.

It is a descendant of the company Blackwater, which did controversial mercenary military work during the Iraq war. Beesley, a Force Options board member, is a former CEO of the Durango Group, a consulting firm led by retired military officers that advises the military.

“Our members are well-known, but our spin is not about Durango Group, Blackwater ... Constellis or the Generals, but rather is all about public safety, sporting, education and jobs,” a Force Options brochure says.

support, opposition

Some Force Options statements in a company document distributed to some Graham County officials raised questions about accuracy and consistency.

The document mentioned Raytheon Missile Systems three times. Mennes described Raytheon in an interview last Wednesday as a potential user of the facility, and said Force Options officials had just met with Raytheon staffers in Tucson.

But John Patterson, a Raytheon spokesman, distanced the company from the project in a statement, saying, “Raytheon has well-established testing capabilities through arrangements with existing ranges, and no plans at this time to utilize any newly proposed range in Arizona.”

The Force Options document also quoted U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake as saying, “I look forward to the establishment of this facility and the development, jobs and additional tourism opportunities it will deliver for Arizona.” But when contacted by the Star, Flake press secretary Elizabeth Berry said that language isn’t an endorsement — just “a welcome message that we would use for any new business in Arizona.” Force Options 360 was asked to remove the quote from its materials to avoid confusion, Berry said.

“I’m all for the military and I respect what they do for us and appreciate what they do for our families and our country,” said Lori Sollers, a Klondyke native who with her husband owns ranchland near both Force Options sites. “I just don’t want them in our backyard. It should go somewhere out in the middle of nowhere where there’s nobody.”

Mennes didn’t deny that private and public military and security training programs could occur, but dismissed as absurd some residents’ concerns that mercenary training would occur. Given Force Options’ 22,000 acres of private, state and federal land, there’s no way neighbors will hear anything, Mennes said.

“I believe that if people object, it’s from the heart, from lack of knowledge and lack of information,” he said. “Once they have a chance to learn that this is about public safety, training and education and that we are going to create jobs, I haven’t seen anybody who has been in opposition. Even the best project has its detractors.”

When the project went before the Graham County Planning and Zoning Commission on Aug. 19, commissioners tabled it until Sept. 16 before a crowd of about 100.

Commissioners said they didn’t get enough information from two Force Options officials about what will take place at its sites.

jobs created unclear

Towering saguaro cacti and stark, rocky canyon walls dominated the promotional photos in a sales brochure for the Cross F a few years back. A promotional video described Cross F as containing 21,000 acres of Arizona’s best hunting, hiking, camping and outdoor activity lands in general. Ranging from 3,520 to 6,180 feet in elevation, the ranch and neighboring Aravaipa Canyon are loaded with pine, cottonwood, oak, alder, sycamore, mahogany and walnut trees, said the video.

The video and brochure touted Aravaipa as “one of the true Arizona wonders,” known for dense biodiversity, whose spring-fed, pristine creek and surrounding canyon walls play host to desert bighorn sheep, mule and white-tailed deer, elk and javelina. The area is home to 100 butterfly species, 400 bird species, 93 mammal species and 47 reptile and amphibian species, giving it the United States’ greatest diversity of vertebrates and the world’s second-best mammal diversity, the video said.

Such remoteness makes the site attractive to potential users, such as Gary Abrams, president and CEO of Abrams Airborne Manufacturing Inc. of Tucson. He has discussed the project with Force Options officials and is interested in using it but has no financial interest. His company builds high-tech electronics hardware, and components for military and aerospace equipment components.

“Some of what I do entails things like drone bodies and flight testing,” said Abrams, whose Tucson plant employs about 200 people. A remote training and testing facility could help his firm gather data on enemy targets and insure that military hardware and software is working properly, he said, although he’s not pushing this particular site.

“Someplace like that needs to be developed. You can’t fly that stuff over inhabited areas like metro Tucson or Maricopa County. That’s basically a liability position that no one is willing to take. You want a clear, remote area,” he said. “But when you go to someplace like the Goldwater Range, a government installation with government priorities, there’s a very long waiting list.

“It sometimes takes 16 to 18 to 20 months to get into an area to do a test.”

An ideal site is close enough to a metro area to have decent airline service, yet remote enough to move people in and out “without disturbing a lot of urbanites,” Abrams said. “A place where you’re doing winter training, summer training, all kinds of training to bring these first responders, law enforcement, Border Patrol people, Homeland Security, to train them to function in an environment that we expect them to function in.”

Force Options agreed to buy the ranch earlier this year for $4.8 million, but the deal won’t close until the company gets a county special-use permit, Mennes said.

It will get a “nominal” number of building improvements before it’s fully operational six months after the permit is issued, he said. Weapons will be tested “in pieces and parts,” he said — not in completed form with full-fledged ordnance and explosives.

More buildings would go up on the 700-acre site, for which the company also has a purchase agreement but needs a zoning change. A 3,700-acre landing strip would be expanded to 5,000 acres, company officials said.

The site will become a public safety center, offering degree-granting classes for emergency managers and other first-responder personnel, Mennes said. It could be used for aircraft maintenance, and to assemble weapons and aircraft parts, although not for manufacturing activity such as metal plating, machinery work and welding, said Jay Cross, Force Options’ chief operating officer.

“My stake in this is that I think it’s good for the economy, the local community and the business community,” said Ron Green, a former Safford mayor who is working to line up local support. “You have kids in Safford who grow up and go to school and get a degree and they have to leave. All four of my kids are engineers, but they are in Phoenix, Mesa and Chandler because there’s no jobs here.”

Mennes said in an interview last week that he expects the Safford site to ultimately have “a couple hundred jobs.”

But residents and an article in the Eastern Arizona Courier said that, at the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, company officials told commissioners they didn’t expect permanent jobs at either facility.

f-35A image stirs worry

Another set of conflicting statements about the project deals with a possible $30 million federal grant. A Force Options brochure says board member and longtime San Antonio businessman and civic leader McCombs and others are “providing” a $30 million Department of Defense grant. But in his interview, Mennes described it as a “potential grant” that might come from another agency.

“There’s a host of agencies that we’re speaking to now that are interested in affiliating,” he said.

The same brochure featured a photo of an F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter plane and noted that the Klondyke site has “terrain resembling Middle East Theaters.”

Both stirred concerns about noise and made residents wonder how such things are consistent with company promises to confine weapons work to small-arms training.

Cross said guidance systems and weapons components “need to be tested in the same kind of terrain the system will be used in.”

Mennes, the company’s managing member, said the F-35 is a symbol of the “hallmark projects” supported by Arizona’s 1,200 military and aerospace businesses.

He said it was used in the brochure simply as an example of the kinds of projects for which parts will be tested on one of the two sites.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@tucson.com or 806-7746. On Twitter: tonydavis987