By Frank X. Mullen
While opponents fight to keep federal land from being transferred to state management, some of the same folks are working to prevent the military from taking control of more than 1,000 square miles of private and public land, most of it now used by a cross-section of Nevadans.
The U.S. Navy wants to triple the size of a Northern Nevada bombing range and training grounds – a proposal that would grab more than 900 square miles of public land across Churchill, Lyon , Mineral, Nye and Pershing counties. The Navy also wants to add more than 100 square miles of private land to the Fallon Range Training Complex. Some of the proposed expansion would be for bombing ranges, while other areas would act as buffer zones or be used for night training exercises. Officials say the expansion is needed to provide more realistic training in light of today’s more advanced aircraft and faster weaponry.
Details of the Navy’s proposal are available at https://frtcmodernization.com/Proposed-Action .
The proposal has drawn fire from diverse users of public lands, including minerals’ firms, hikers, rock hounds, hunters, off-road cruisers and wildlife conservationists. Opponents say the public would be fenced off much of the land, and expanded bombing ranges, after being polluted by ordnance, would never revert to public ownership or private use. To date, about 200,000 acres of existing Navy bombing ranges are off limits to the public.
“This (current proposed expansion) would blow a hole through the middle of the Great Basin desert, literally,” says Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director for the Center for Biological Diversity, in an interview with the Navy Times in December.
In Southern Nevada, the Air Force plans to expand the Nellis Test and Training Range on to an additional 300,000 acres of public land, including more than 200,000 acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas . That land wouldn’t be used as a bombing target, but the Air Force says the measure would allow “ready access” to conduct exercises on the land.
Both proposals were the topic of public meetings last year held to collect comments on the respective environmental impact statements. The Navy’s Fallon EIS comment period has been extended to Feb. 14 (on line comments can be made at https://frtcmodernization.com/).
Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of Basin and Range Watch, a Nevada environmental group, says the public meetings on the Navy’s proposal, held in December, hosted opponents from other environmental groups, the mining industry, recreational users, ranchers, hunters, county commissioners and land owners. “It’s been pretty universal opposition,” he says.
Emmerich says the Navy appears to be stacking the deck by offering four alternatives – as required by federal law – but none of those options involve keeping the status quo. Instead, the Navy offered one alternative for vacating its existing bombing ranges (in other words, giving up the 200,000 acres they now use, but which can no longer be utilized as public-access land) and three other alternative actions that involve expanding the Navy’s operations on to public and private lands. The Air Force proposal in Southern Nevada , he says, did include a status quo alternative, an option to just leave things the way they are.
“We have a real problem with that absence of a status quo alternative in the Navy’s proposal,” he says. “The other three alternatives are all for expansion. They are not giving the public an option to say ‘keep it as it is.’ They are throwing that first alternative at us knowing that is most likely never going to happen. We think that’s underhanded… We don’t believe they provided a reasonable range of alternatives.”
Emmerich says he hopes one of the larger environmental groups takes the Navy to court over the issue, something that Great Basin Watch lacks the resources to do. The plan to convert 1,000 square miles of Northern Nevada to military control should be everyone’s concern, he says.
“Some of the land won’t be bombed, but whatever they do, they will completely cut off or severely limit people’s access,” he says.
In the early 1990s, the Navy asked for a five-fold increase its Nevada training area, from about 100,000 acres to nearly 500,000 acres. The service cited improved and faster weaponry as its reason for the request. After extended debate, the naval training area was expanded to its present 200,000 acres. Ultimately, Congress will decide on the Air Force’s current Nellis expansion plans and also will have to approve funding for any expansion of the Fallon Naval Air Station’s training grounds.