Cortez Masto unveils alternative for naval air station expansion

Fallon NAS
Military training at Fallon Naval Air Station in 2003. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron D. Allmon II)

An effort to triple the size of a naval air station near Fallon continues to draw ire from conservationists, tribes and rural county officials but some groups are amenable to an alternate plan.

Last week, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto proposed an alternative to a Navy proposal to take more than 660,000 acres of public land for bomb testing and military training activities.

The Fallon Naval Air Station already covers nearly 230,000 acres including four bombing ranges and a ground training area for the U.S. Navy SEALs. 

The Congressional legislation that authorizes the Navy to occupy most of the land is set to expire in 2021 and will need Congress to renew the land withdrawal. 

But Navy officials say the existing acreage is insufficient to train pilots with modern weaponry and want to expand to more than 890,000 acres almost triple its current size.

About half of the proposed new acreage comes from expanding the Dixie Valley Training area about 40 miles east of Fallon in Churchill County that includes Dixie Valley, the only known habitat of the Dixie Valley toad.

The plan would also expand the Bravo 20 range, placing it adjacent to the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, an important resting area for migrating birds.

Tribes, environmental groups, rural officials, cattle ranchers and others have objected to various aspects of the proposed expansion, fearing loss of land, damage to the environment, and loss of economic opportunities.

Cortez Masto developed a draft of her alternative proposal with those concerns in mind, according to her office.

“This alternative to the Navy’s expansion proposal will meet the needs of service members who serve at NAS Fallon, while also prioritizing recommendations and input from conservation groups, outdoor recreation industries, sportsmen, farmers, ranchers, and local county and tribal governments in Pershing, Douglas, Lander and Churchill counties,” said Cortez Masto in a statement.

All together the 169-page draft bill, dubbed the ‘‘Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act,’’ could potentially transfer an additional 400,000 acres out of public hands across the state for military use and local economic development. However, unlike the Navy’s proposal, Cortez Masto’s bill would not hand control of the Dixie Valley Special Management Area or Sand Springs Mountains to the Navy, provides compensation for those affected by the expansion including tribes, and creates new protected areas.

The proposal will now be referred for consideration in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020.

Environment

The bill would add about 890,000 acres of land as natural conservation and wilderness areas across rural Northern Nevada and removes about 300,000 acres of land from oil and gas leasing in the Ruby Mountains. 

However, some environmental groups have remained critical of the expansion despite compromises. 

“Cortez Masto’s bill would be one of the biggest land grabs in Nevada’s history,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Nevadans have clearly expressed their opposition to this military land seizure, yet the senator has rolled out the red carpet for the Navy to drop bombs on our public lands.”

While Cortez Masto’s bill would cut the Navy expansion by about 51,000 acres in the Bravo 20 range it would still give the Navy nearly 167,000 acres adjacent to the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge.  

“The bombing-range expansion would do significant harm to central Nevada’s wildlife. Bombs would be dropped on important bighorn sheep and mule deer habitat and increasing low-level overflights would have devastating effects on birds,” Donnelly said. “The irreplaceable aquatic habitat at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, a vital stopover on the Pacific flyway, would be severely harmed by overflights, likely disturbing migratory and breeding birds. The refuge is Nevada’s largest winter habitat for bald eagles.”

Other environmental groups are less critical. Friends of Nevada Wilderness have worked with county lawmakers and the Nevada congressional delegation for years to develop improved versions of the Pershing County Lands Bill and Douglas County Lands Bill, which have been rolled into the draft legislation.

“These are all bills that we have been involved in and would really like to see them passed,” said Friends of Nevada Wilderness Executive Director Shaaron Netherton. “We’re grateful to the senator for continuing to care about getting these passed because they are really important conservation bills.” 

Full implementation of the Navy’s proposal for the expansion “would be horrible and disastrous,” said Nertherton, adding that Cortez Masto’s proposal is a vast improvement.

“We’ve never been fans of more land being taken from the public for the military,” said Nertherton. “I would rather not have any expansion of the Fallon Naval Air Station. Nevada’s already lost so much public land to the military.”

Cortez Masto’s proposal would also prevent the Dixie Valley Special Management Area — about 248,000 acres — and home of the Dixie Valley toad from being withdrawn by the Navy, however, the Navy would still be able to conduct limited training activities.

Tribal

Dating back to 1959, the Navy has contaminated over 6,000 acres of the Walker River Paiute Tribe’s reservation. Cortez Masto’s proposal includes a $20 million payment from the U.S. Navy as compensation for those historical harms, as well as replacement lands for the tribe.

The proposal would withdraw about 92,000 acres of land to protect tribal cultural resources, including placing nearly 11,000 acres in a trust for the Fallon Paiute Tribe and about 3,000 in trust for the Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada in Douglas County. Funds for the Navy and Interior to pay for three full-time tribal positions to facilitate tribal access and identify cultural resources would be available under the proposal.

The Fallon Paiute Tribe have been battling the expansion since 2016 and say they will carefully evaluate the proposal and consider any good faith effort to strengthen it and better protect the tribe’s interests.

“The Tribe has long opposed expansion, because it would allow bombing on our ancestral lands and deprive the Tribe of access to areas that are essential to its culture and way of life,” read a statement released by the tribe. “The Navy has already destroyed our origin site at Fox Peak with its target practice, and bombed our most important medicine rock, which is now in the Bravo-20 range. The expansion proposal deepens these wounds and threatens similar harms over hundreds of thousands of acres.”

“The Tribe understands that the Navy has exerted great political pressure and that Senator Cortez-Masto has attempted to create what in her view is an acceptable compromise. However, we have the most to lose from expansion and remain deeply concerned that any benefits of the proposal come at the Tribe’s expense.”

While the Fallon Paiute Tribe remains opposed to the proposals, another tribe has expressed support.

Amber Torres, chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, said that while the alternative isn’t perfect, it does represent a solution that gives tribes a voice at the table. 

“We, as the Walker River Paiute Tribe, want to thank Senator Cortez Masto for her commitment to resolving our historical grievances for contamination of our reservation lands. We appreciate her outreach to help us find a solution, and we hope that Congress will approve our settlement before the end of the year,” Torres said.

The proposal would also create at least three new National Conservation Areas – Fox Peak, Grimes Point, and Pistone-Black Mountain, an area of cultural significance to the Walker River Paiute Tribe and others.

Rural Counties

Several rural counties, including Churchill, Lander, Mineral, Pershing and Nye, would be affected, and rural residents fear the Navy’s proposal does not do enough to mitigate the economic impact of the range expansion to rural communities.

The expansion would permanently close off portions of active federal grazing permits surrounding the Fallon range, which ranches use to feed their livestock.

Cortez Massto’s proposal would offer mitigation payments to impacted mining claims, grazing allotment, and water claim holders as well as compensation to private landowners whose land is seized by the Navy.

Churchill County would be the most impacted under the Navy’s proposed expansion.

“In the case of ranchers that have lost either water rights or grazing claims you have to make them whole somehow. These are not willing sellers,” said Pete Olsen, chair of the Churchill County Commission. “The Navy has to do these things first rather than dragging people along. Maybe you don’t live long enough to get compensated, we are trying to make sure the Navy is an honest broker.” 

The senator’s proposal would also convey land to Churchill, Douglas, and Lander county for economic growth opportunities. It also requires the Navy to allow and manage access on select withdrawn lands for game hunting, outdoor recreation, geothermal development, grazing, mining and flood management.

“Nobody gets everything you want, and we certainly don’t. It doesn’t fix everything the way we want it,” said Olsen, adding, however, that the bill does take a look at what rural residents demanded.

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.