Fallon Naval Air Station proposed expansion Record of Decision ready to drop

Sunset at a livestock corral north of the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, 1/30/2018 - image - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus Photography

Several years ago the Navy began scoping an expansion of the bombing ranges at the Naval Air Station in Fallon to accommodate a new generation of weapons. This expansion is timed to coincide with the need for Congressional approval to renew the Navy’s current public land withdrawal, which is set to expire in November of 2021. The Navy must bring their renewal request to Congress in the form of a bill.

Hear an audio feature produced in conjunction with KUNR Public Radio.

The Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center is based at The Fallon Range Training Complex and is famously known as the Navy’s “TOPGUN” school where Navy and Marine Corps pilots learn to refine air combat techniques. Navy Seals also train at the facility prior to deployment.

The Navy’s preferred plan includes renewal of the 1999 Public Land Withdrawal of 202,864 acres. The plan also requests an additional withdrawal of 618,727 acres of public lands and the acquisition of approximately 65,159 acres of private or state owned lands. Under this preferred alternative the complex would total 886,750 acres, more than four times its current size.

History

Since its establishment in 1944, the Fallon Training Complex air ranges have grown with the development of military technology.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy built the Naval Air Station Fallon in 1944 as part of the Western Defense Program intended to repel a Japanese attack on the west coast. The government also constructed air strips in Winnemucca, Minden and Lovelock.

During WWII, based on the numbers of take offs and landings, NAS Fallon was a wildly busy place where naval aviators and flight crews trained for action in Europe and the Pacific.

After the war, the base all but closed until the Korean conflict and the advent of high-performance jet aircraft. The current bombing ranges, Bravo 16, 17, and 19 were created in 1951 when the airfield was recommissioned and now familiar jet fighters first flew in Nevada.

The Naval Air Station Fallon is some 75 years old and has grown in size as weapons technology has developed – image – US Navy

In July 1996, the Navy commissioned the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center or TOPGUN school. Navy officials combined the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School and the Naval Strike Warfare Center into one command.

According to the Navy, the current training area dimensions were designed to accommodate Vietnam-era aircraft that approach enemies at 10,000 feet and drop their ordnance close to the target. Contemporary bombs enable aircraft to approach targets at 30,000 feet or higher and deploy “smart weapons” from 10 to 12 miles away. The new ordnance is mostly reliable and designed to explode within one to three meters of the target, but the Navy says it needs more room to safely train.

Image – US Navy

The National Environmental Policy Act

For the Navy to expand the dimensions of their current training ranges, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mandates the creation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The law requires an exhaustive public engagement process to include communication with all entities and individuals that may experience negative impacts of the proposed actions.

A draft EIS was released on November 18, 2018. As mandated in NEPA, the Navy held a series of 9 public meetings and accepted oral and written comments.

To satisfy the requirements of NEPA, the Navy had to conduct a “rigorous exploration and objective evaluation of reasonable alternatives.” After integrating public comments, the Navy issued a final EIS on January 10, which started a 30 day waiting period before being presented to Congress and the issuance of a Record of Decision (ROD) by the US Bureau of Land Management. In Congress, a bill will be drafted to expand the land withdrawal based on the ROD.

The 4,196 page Final EIS contains analysis of potential impacts on land use, mining and mineral resources, livestock grazing, transportation, airspace, noise, air quality, water resources, biological resources, cultural resources, recreation, socioeconomics, public health and safety and protection of children, and environmental justice.

The final EIS contains four actions and alternatives including a “No Action Alternative.” The “No Action Alternative” would require the Navy to not pursue renewal of the 1999 Public Land Withdrawal of 202,864 acres which is scheduled to expire in November 2021. Under the No Action Alternative, the Navy would not attempt to acquire any new land. This choice would effectively close the facility.

The Naval Air Station Fallon training boundaries as they exist today – image – US Navy

Of the 4 alternatives, the Navy’s preferred course of action is Alternative 3. Under the plan, the Navy would renew the 1999 Public Land Withdrawal of 202,864 acres and request an additional withdrawal of 618,727 acres of public lands. The Navy would also acquire approximately 65,159 acres of private or state owned lands. Under this alternative the complex would total 886,750 acres.

Activities within the land use areas of the Fallon Range Training Complex under Alternative 3

Image – US Navy

On January 28 of this year, the Navy held a meeting in Fallon to present the Final EIS and answer questions. Some 200 people attended. Captain Evan Morrison is the commanding officer at NAS Fallon. As a pilot, Morrison did a tour at NAS Fallon from 2002 to 2004 and has been deployed in support to combat operations several times. In his 33 year career, Morrison has logged more than 3,300 hours in six different aircraft and said the training ranges at Fallon have and continue to be critical to the Navy’s mission readiness.

“What I can tell you from my personal experience as a naval aviator and as the commanding officer that there’s no other place in the country that has the facilities and infrastructure to provide us the required training our men and women need in the Naval Air Forces,” Morrison said to those gathered.

Some 200 people gathered in Fallon for presentation of the Final EIS on January 28, 2020 – image – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus Photography

Opposition to the expansion comes from diverse quarters. An unusual alliance of hunters, miners, ranchers, rockhounds, conservation groups, environmentalists, and Native American tribes have opposed the expansion at public meetings and in written comments. Other than Navy representatives, no one from the public spoke at the January 28 meeting in support of the proposed expansion.

On March 25 of 2019, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed Assembly Joint Resolution 7, a formal statement of opposition to the expansion of the Fallon Naval Air Station training ranges put forward by the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and Mining.

View looking north along Fissure Ridge towards the Monti Cristo Mountains. This area is in the middle of the proposed withdrawal for Bravo Range B-17, 4/12/2019 – image – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus Photography

Dan Johnson is a representative of outdoor retailer Patagonia and offered comments at the January 28 meeting that spoke to the rare, bi-partisan coalition. Johnson said to approve the withdrawal of nearly a million acres of public land would be to utterly disregard public opinion.

“First off, I would like to say thank you to the men and women of our armed forces,” Johnson said. “Because of your efforts, I’m here able to submit a comment on this public process and this is a gift that I appreciate and swear not to take for granted. With that being said, myself and Patagonia would like to stand with our state legislators in opposition to the proposed Fallon naval base expansion.

“Public land debates in the current era have frequently pitted different special interest groups against each other. This doesn’t seem to be the case here,” Johnson continued. “The opposition has been a bipartisan display of civic responsibility, which is rare in this day and age. We all have something to lose from this proposal, from hunters to hikers and all those in between.”

According to the Nevada Outdoor Industry Association, the outdoor recreation economy in Nevada generates $12.6 billion dollars a year in consumer spending which results in $1.1 billion in state and local tax revenue, 87,000 jobs and $1.4 billion in wages and salaries. Dan Johnson said Patagonia employs 1000 people in Reno and that’s just a “minuscule slice of the pie.” Johnson said those jobs depend on citizen access to public lands.

“These jobs and income, they depend on public land being available to recreate on. Nevada’s public lands are a point of pride for its residents. It’s really unfathomable to imagine those areas picked apart and rendered inaccessible to Nevadans. No one can argue about the need for armed forces to effectively train to fulfill their responsibilities to defend our nation, but there has to be a compromise in this particular situation.

“I urge the Navy and eventually the congressional delegation to seriously consider the Friends of Nevada Wilderness comments and suggestions for a wilderness designation surrounding the Fallon naval training area. If you’re looking for a buffer, we’ve got a buffer for you,” Johnson said.

Wetlands formed in an alkali flat by Wedell Springs and Rawhide Hot Springs. The view is toward the east with the Monti Cristo Mountains on the left and Fissure Ridge on the right. Gabbs Valley and the town of Gabbs lay beyond the mountain ranges. This area is in the middle of the proposed withdrawal of public lands to expand Bravo Range B-17, 3/30/2019 – image – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus Photography

Perhaps most controversial, Alternative 3 would eliminate four existing Wilderness Study Areas: Sweetwater Mountains, Jobs Peak, Clan Alpine Mountains and Desatoya Mountains WSAs.

A Wilderness Study Area (WSA) is an area designated for further study to determine if it meets criteria to be designated by Congress as a Wilderness Area.

In a written response to the Final EIS, Friends of Nevada Wilderness said the Navy has disregarded the will of citizens. The conservation group offered an alternative to the withdrawal of four WSAs.

Instead of trying to eliminate 74,700 acres of high-quality wilderness study areas or
WSAs the military should recommend that all of the WSAs surrounding their
proposed expansions be fully designated as Wilderness. These Wilderness areas
would serve as excellent development buffers for the military while still allowing for
protecting wildlife habitat and recreation.

The Navy said it cannot maintain the WSAs despite repeated requests in writing to keep their designation intact.

Regarding Wilderness Study Areas and the proposed de-designation, the proposed de-designation of portions of Wilderness Study Areas is necessary to meet certain training requirements, such as installing stationary and mobile electronic threat emitters, landing helicopters, and maneuvering by special operations forces (along with other non-hazardous training activities, such as night vision goggle training and low-altitude flights). This type of training within Wilderness Study Areas is not currently permitted and any de-designation would require Congressional action, as discussed in Section 3.12 (Recreation). The Navy also must maintain control of the area as part of the DVTA, and without withdrawing these portions of the WSAs, it would not have the ability to keep these areas open to training in the way that is needed.

Donna Cossette is cultural director for the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and offered emotional testimony during the January 28 meeting in Fallon. Cossette said the Navy has always disregarded the native peoples of northern Nevada and desecrated holy spots with no apparent remorse.

“The military has not been kind to the Toi Ticutta (Cattail Eaters),” Cossette said. “In 1952 the United States military gunned down our most precious deity the First Parents and the place where they created the First People,” Cossette said. “On top of that, there was also a water source that generates from that point. It is known as Wahi Ticutiqua, Fox Peak or Jobs Peak as you know it today. There were two pinnacle white stones with spring water flowing down from them. The figures of the First Parents were gunned down by the military by the pilots during World War II. No apology given.

“To the north there’s a place called Lusee, Wolf Head, a.k.a. Low Mountain. This place was not easy to get to and was viewed as a beautiful place for prayer and sacred water. To the ignorant it was a convenient landmark, so it was destroyed and used as target practice. Now it looks like the moon that bleeds water. The sacred water never will be touched or prayed over again,” Cossette said.

Amber Torres is chairwoman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Schurz, Nevada. She spoke in strong opposition to the proposed expansion.

“I do want to say that the tribe would like to support the legislation in partnership with the Navy because we understand that our men and women need to be trained properly because they are protecting us and they’re working on our best behalf. But at the same time, I cannot do this, as our concerns have not been addressed,” Torres said.

Chairwoman Torres pointed to lingering concerns over flyover impacts on tribal citizens from sonic booms to wayward ordnance. Torres added that the Navy’s history in her community does not engender confidence in the Final EIS.

“I have people, tribal citizens of my nation that have bombs in their front yard, and those travesties have never been righted at this point.”

Following the meeting in Fallon on January 28, The Ally asked NAS Fallon commanding officer Evan Morrison about ordnance entering the Walker River Paiute Reservation.

“I think there’s been one instance in maybe the last 10 to 12 years of a piece of ordnance going off range due to error.

“Back in the day, when you look back at the original documents for Bravo 19, the running heading to that bombing range used to be north and south. Now back when you use general purpose or glide weapons, dumb bombs per se, if a headwind or a tail wind wasn’t quite what you calculated or a change in altitude or air speed or some type of pilot error, your munition could go long or fall short depend upon which heading, and that over the years had caused some off range ordnance.

“So 15 years ago, they changed the run-in heading to that bombing range to east west to try to prevent that. And I think in 2016 was the last incident. That was the first incident since they changed that run-in heading, so there’s always always some error or a weapon that could have a defect in it. But we try to change our procedures to minimize that to the greatest extent possible. And from the Assistant Secretary of the Navy on down, we are in consultation with the Walker River Paiute Tribe to come to resolution on that.”

In her public comments on January 28, Torres said she wanted the Navy to finally solve its “legacy issue” when the bill is drafted to renew the land withdrawal and authorize the expansion.

“I also believe this legislation needs to include funding to compensate the Walker River Paiute Tribe for the loss of its use of its reservation lands due to contamination from past activities. It is time to resolve this, as the fellow at the naval air station calls it, the ‘legacy issue.’ That means historical bombing on the Walker River Pauite Reservation for the past 61 years. So now is the time that this needs to be taken care of the legacy issue. This problem needs to be taken care of once and for all, and I feel that the withdrawal legislation is the best opportunity to fix this.”

Torres emphasized the importance of culture to her tribe and added that it will be demoralizing to have to ask permission to access burial sites.

“The NEPA Final EIS does not address the social and economic impacts to the tribes. And the law requires that analysis, such as sacred sites containing our ancestors, their remains. Having to ask permission to go to our sacred sites to do our cultural, traditional values, blessings prayers. To me that’s very disheartening to have to ask permission to go out and do these types of things that we do. Our culture means the world to us.”

Following the January 28 meeting, The Ally asked Captain Evan Morrison about the impacts of the proposed expansion on cultural resources. He limited the relevance of his response to “actual target impact areas” and not the entire areas of withdrawal.

“There’s a very fine line to balance now in the proposed target impact areas that we’ve asked withdrawn. We have done cultural surveys in those areas and we have not identified (any burial sites) and we’ve asked the tribes for their input. If we have any knowledge gaps, please let us know. But there are no designated burial grounds within the actual target impact areas that we have asked to withdraw.”

We asked Captain Morrison if he heard new or unaddressed criticism of the expansion at the January 28 meeting.

“Not really. I think I’ve heard just about everything before and even it seems like when we try to set the record straight on certain things that even when it’s in writing, it doesn’t seem to take traction.”

View looking north along Fissure Ridge towards the Monti Cristo Mountains. This area is in the middle of the proposed
withdrawal for Bravo Range B-17. The geologic features in the photo are the result of a Miocene age volcanic fissure, not mining activity, 4/12/2019 – image – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus Photography

We asked Morrison for an example of mistaken communication. He offered access to the Dixie Valley.

“A lot of people still continually and constantly believe that access and the Dixie Valley area, the Dixie Valley Training Area will be closed to the public. I have personally reviewed the draft record decision and the language is in there that specifically states, the Dixie Valley trainers, they’ll be open to the public,” Morrison said.

Captain Morrison was sure to point out that the majority of the area the Navy is requesting to be withdrawn will primarily function as a safety buffer. He said there was a misconception that an expansion of the training areas will dramatically change their operations.

“What people I think don’t realize here is we’re not talking about increasing any of our operations. That’s not what our issue is about. Our issue is with the level and the quality of the training that our pilots are receiving. That’s really what is driving this entire expansion. It’s not that it’s over a larger area per se. As I said, we’re going to fly the same ground track, we’re going to be maybe a little higher altitude, and when we release that weapon from a farther distance, our safety buffer that we need to protect the public just has to be that much bigger as just a safety margin. That’s 96 percent of the withdrawal in the bombing range is strictly a safety buffer.”

Concern Over Impacts on Wildlife

Even after publication of the Final EIS, concern over the potential effects of noise on bighorn sheep and waterfowl populations remain. The Stillwater Marsh is the largest marsh in the state and part of the expanded land withdrawal.

According to Nevada Department of Wildlife data, upwards of 1,000 bighorn sheep have the potential to be impacted by the sound of air combat training, roughly 14 percent of the entire Nevada herd. Numerous water guzzlers have been installed for wildlife across the area proposed for withdrawal, and the Nevada Department of Wildlife will be allowed to maintain them. A bighorn sheep hunt will be carefully organized. Several groups complained in writing and in public comment that the Final EIS does not resolve questions regarding impacts on wildlife. The Navy responded that it has conducted wildlife surveys and analysis in the proposed areas of expansion.

Based on species distribution data, historical coexistence with training activities, and the analysis presented in the Final EIS, populations would not be significantly impacted by proposed training activities. While the analysis indicates a less than significant impact, the Final EIS has been updated to include a discussion of potential impacts on individuals of a species.

The US military now controls roughly 5 percent of Nevada. Many at the meeting asked why the Navy could not share the Nevada Test and Training Range adjacent to Nellis Air Force Base in southern Nevada instead of expanding the range in northern Nevada.

Captain Morrison told us the Fallon facility is not funded for 24-7 operations and that flying to southern Nevada to train is not sustainable. According to Captain Morrison, Nellis Air Force base is currently operating at 130 percent of capacity and is working to expand its operating dimensions as well.

“If we have an airplane that takes off from here and tries to go down to the Nellis range to do a practice mission and then come back here, the airplane doesn’t carry enough fuel to do that. The amount of fuel required, we would have to have airborne tankers to do that, which again costs a lot more money, costs a lot more fuel,” Morrison said.

Captain Morrison said it’s his job to look at the base expansion from the perspective of national security readiness, an issue he takes with grave seriousness. Asking him after the January 28 meeting, he was not confident that the Navy would get what it wants.

“I think a lot of people think that this is a done deal. It is not. This is our proposal on what we’re saying. Our requirement is in order to make sure our men and women are trained properly. And as it goes through the congressional and legislative process, as you have seen tonight, there will be a lot of people engaging with their local representatives, the congressmen and senators. And we will do the same thing. We’re following the same process. And it’s our job to try to educate the public the best that we can on why we’re asking for this.”

Based on comments made during the January 28 meeting, it appears that Captain Morrison is correct in presuming that those who oppose the expansion will contact their Congressional representatives to press their cases. The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe member Donna Cossette told the Captain that he would see her again.

“There is sacred places that will be closed off to the public and more importantly to the people who have been there since time immemorial, meaning our native people. Take a good look at my face, because you will be seeing it again and again. I will be the one you’ll be arresting from our sacred places. I cannot no longer be Toi Ticutta. The government is killing the Toi Ticutta and our traditional ways of living. Our traditional way of being. Our people are essentially in the land. We were buried here. Our families are here. Our blood is here. Our new generations are going to be here. Hopefully there will be one. Your war machine does not bleed. It only causes destruction, whatever, wherever it goes.

“The people of the war machine do not live in the area. You do not die here. We do. You have no ties to this land. You only use it as your wasted land to protect the people of America. Well, I was once told that I’m an American citizen of this great state, great United States of America. My people are about 1 percent of the 1 percent, the Toi Ticutta. You are killing us.”