The U.S. Navy has long argued that its Fallon Range Training Complex in Nevada needs more space to test aviation weapons that fly at higher altitudes and greater distances in order to counter evolving threats in modern warfare.
Taking steps to expand the range, the military has proposed taking ownership of 618,727 acres of public land and acquiring up to approximately 65,153 acres of private and state-owned land, an action that would more than triple the size of the training complex.
To ensure safety and allow for realistic training, the military proposal would restrict public access to much of the area, including areas used for grazing and hunting.
Several rural counties, including Churchill, Lander, Mineral, Pershing, and Nye, would be affected, and some rural residents fear the navy’s proposal does not do enough to mitigate the economic impact of the range expansion to rural communities.
“For crying out loud, the government owns 85 percent of Nevada already and they’re trying to get more,” said Rick Niedzwiecki, a board member for the Mineral County Economic Development Authority and a small business owner. “If you take away the possibility of future growth then we don’t have income down the road. It turns from ‘if-come’ into nothing. The Mineral economy is already depressed economically for business growth. We don’t want to stunt business growth anymore.”
The project Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) argues that the expansion is not anticipated to result in negative social consequences such as lifestyle disruptions, health risks, or cultural, community, or quality of life impacts. The EIS acknowledges, however, that the expansion “would to some extent reduce opportunities for certain economic activities closely associated with the region.”
Rural residents say they firmly believe the expansion will harm their communities and the effect of the expansion cannot be reduced to data analysis.
“I’ve been in several meetings where professors from UNR come out and give us all this data on our economy and the people in the know go ‘really where did they come up with this?’,” Niedzwiecki said. “I just feel that people in the government who are looking at this acquisition are looking at data as opposed to living people and their future plans.”
The Best in the Desert Racing Association holds an annual off-road vehicle race from Las Vegas to Reno that would traverse lands in Mineral County within the proposed expansion area. The race is billed as “the longest off-road race in the United States” and, while the race itself only lasts one day, preparation for the race, including marking the route, brings in between $714,000 and $2,142,000 in event spending, according to data from the Nevada Division of Tourism visitor survey.
Niedzwiecki said one of the main reasons he moved to Mineral County five years ago was because of the available space for recreation that supports his lodging business, Hawthorn Suites. But when he hears of changes like these he worries about his family’s way of life and the economic future of the county.
“If it deters growth out here it could deter my business,” Niedzwiecki said.
As a result of implementing the proposal, portions of active federal grazing permits surrounding the Fallon range, which ranches use to feed their livestock, would be permanently closed off.
Under the navy’s preferred plan, permits on 12 livestock allotments allowed by the Bureau of Land Management and one from the Bureau of Reclamation will be affected by the expansion. While there would be impacts to individual ranchers, the navy’s preferred plan in he EIS concludes there would be “no significant impact” to the total economic activity within the affected counties due to the loss.
“It will severely impact if not put them out of business,” counters Jon Griggs, vice president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association. “Ranchers contribute a lot to the local economy. We know that agricultural dollars turn over a community more than any other business sector. It’s not just important to ranchers, it’s important to the communities within them as well.”
Nevada’s farms covered nearly 6 million acres of land in 2012. Approximately 44 percent of Nevada’s farms were in cattle and calf production in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2016, Nevada’s ranches ranked third in the nation in size, averaging 3,500 acres, according to the Nevada Department of Agriculture.
Some rural residents see the expansion as another slight against rural counties in a long list of putting rural communities second.
“It’s a tough thing, but it happens to us a lot,” Griggs said. “There are a lot of values to us there that are important to us that seem to get thrown out the window because when you look at the amount of people directly impacted it’s pretty small. There are values there that we feel aren’t taken into consideration. They can figure out a way to use what they got to use and still allow people to continue their way of life.”
In order to withdraw the land, the navy must submit a legislative proposal through the Department of the Interior. After the navy comes to a final decision on the expansion they must receive final Congressional approval.
Two areas that fall under the expansion would remain open to public access and available for all BLM-allowable uses like grazing, hunting, recreation, and all mining. However, prior to issuing any decisions on projects, permits, leases, studies, and other land uses, the BLM would have to consult with the navy.
The Nevada state office of The Bureau of Land Management could not be contacted for this story.
“You’ve reached the Bureau of Land Management. Due to the lapse in funding with the federal budget we are not authorized to work during this time,” a voicemail said.
While the navy says the final proposal they hope to implement will allow the greatest amount of public land access and use, many rural residents continue to oppose the expansion.
“They’ve got plenty of grounds,” said Red Harrell a rancher in the affected Nye County. “They’ve got acres and acres. We don’t have money to fight it and you can’t fight the government anyway. They come over our cows when they’re doing training and they just blast you away with the noise of those jets. They’re like toys to them. They don’t care about us down here. It’s a losing battle, they break you. They got too many ways to shut you down.”
Harrell said he fears if land continues to get stripped away from rural communities, towns will disappear and “small mom and pop operations” will struggle economically for generations to come.
“If I lose everything, whatever, I’ll make a way,” Harrell said. “Towns and communities and places folks have had all their lives, they’re going to move in and take it. People have families and they have to make a living and it’s something they’ve worked at all their lives and all of a sudden, it’s no longer feasible. You got to be a big cattle corporation or you’re out. I just thank God I’m the age I am. I won’t have to deal with this much longer. It’s my kids and grand kids I’m worried about.”