Sen. Cortez Masto corrals diverse stakeholders for Fallon Air Station expansion

Reaction to the Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act, including a passel of lands bills

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

The United States Navy has proposed the expansion of existing aircraft and Navy Seal training ranges around the Fallon Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nevada, 60 miles east of Reno.  

Several years ago the Navy began scoping an expansion of the bombing ranges to accommodate a new generation of weapons that require, according to the Navy, more area to adequately and safely train.  

The proposed 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. 

The Navy’s preferred plan includes renewal of the 1999 Public Land Withdrawal of 202,864 acres. The Navy now 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 the Navy’s preferred alternative, the complex would total 886,750 acres, more than four times its current size. 

In order to expand the base, the Navy and the Bureau of Land Management had to follow the demands of the National Environmental Policy Act, to include the creation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The Navy held several public meetings and accepted written comments as well. 

After the creation of an EIS, a final Record of Decision (ROD) was published in the Federal Register on March 12 of 2020. 

On October 7, U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) released a draft of the Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act. The sweeping legislation largely features an alternative proposal for the expansion of the Naval Air Station (NAS) Fallon as outlined in the ROD.  

Unrelated to national defense, several public land management bills, for Churchill, Pershing, Lander, and Douglas are tacked on to the legislation.  

The Senator’s proposal also includes a previously introduced bill to prohibit oil and gas development in the Ruby Mountains and to create a national veterans cemetery in Elko. 

The bill is intended for consideration in the final version of the FY2021 National Defense Reauthorization Act (NDAA). 

Every year, the NDAA is a must-pass piece of federal legislation.  

The 2020 NDAA allocated $738 billion for operation of the United States military. The gargantuan document has 79 titles, 648 amendments, and 222 related bills. The 2021 NDAA will likely be as vast and Byzantine with innumerable nooks for pork and lawmaking unrelated to national defense. 

According to Senator Cortez-Masto’s Office, her bill allows NAS Fallon to continue training service members to ensure combat readiness “while also prioritizing recommendations and input from conservation groups, outdoor recreation industries, farmers, ranchers, and local county and tribal governments in Pershing, Douglas, Lander and Churchill counties,” the Senator’s Office wrote in a press release. 

The Walker River Paiute Tribe 

The Walker River Reservation is only 60 miles southeast of Fallon. When training jet fighter pilots to deliver a variety of ordinance, 60 miles is an eye blink away. Over time, many wayward munitions have landed on tribal land. 

In the Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act, the Navy concedes that it contaminated more than 6,000 acres of tribal land with live ordnance, caused historical damage to range wells and facilities, and has “rendered the Tribe’s lands useless with no viable prospect of remediation.” 

The bill directs the Navy to provide a one-time payment of $20 million to the Walker River Tribe.  The bill would also provide approximately 8,899 acres of federal land across four parcels to be held in trust for the Tribe for replacement of the unusable land impacted by prior military operations. This land would be available for economic development purposes, excluding gaming. 

“We at Walker River want to just greatly appreciate Senator Cortez Masto’s commitment to resolving our historical grievances for contamination of our reservation lands,” said Walker River Paiute tribal chairwoman Amber Torres. “We also appreciate her outreach to finding us a solution or working with us to find a solution. And we hope that Congress will approve our settlement in the NDAA before the end of the year.” 

The Walker River Paiute Tribe has lived in the area for more than 10,000 years. Cultural heritage sites are scattered throughout the region. The Cortez Masto bill establishes the existing Black Mountain/Pistone Archaeological District, as administered by the BLM, as a National Conservation Area. The parcel is 3,415 acres and is contiguous to the Walker River Paiute Tribe’s reservation boundary. 

“We’ve had a good working relationship. They (Sen. Cortez Masto’s Office) have heard the tribe. They have looked at the historical grievances that we’ve been working with them on for quite some time. And I think this is the biggest thing to alleviate some of the historical grievances that we’ve had and move forward in a positive light,” Torres said. 

 The Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe 

Len George is chairman of the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe near Fallon, Nevada. The Tribe has a long history with the Navy. Simply put, George says the Tribe opposes the expansion. 

“To the new language (in the Senator’s bill), the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe has always been against the expansion from day one. And we’ve never changed our stance,” George said by phone. 

Following the publication of the Record of Decision in March of this year, George says that he and other tribal council members expected to hear from federal, elected officials regarding the base expansion. 

“We knew at some point they were going to come back and talk to us about expansion and right before Cortez Masto presented, we knew eventually they’re going to come back at a later date and try to negotiate something so that this expansion goes through. But in this case, they’ve given this really short amount of time and we decided that we’re against it. Always have been, always will be.” 

According to Chairman George, Senator Cortez Masto’s Office contacted the Tribe last week regarding the new bill. 

“I do believe it was last Thursday we actually had a conference call. We got an email saying that, basically letting us know that we need to respond back and to let them know our decision on the new language that was put in. 

“And the Council did meet, because I told them (Senator Cortez Masto’s Office) I could not as the chairman, I’m just one vote of the ruling body on the Council. I told them I could not make a decision at that time.  

“So we ended up having to have a meeting, and again, our Council has decided to … our stance was ‘no, no to any expansion whatsoever,’ and that’s what they decided to do. We are not going to support whatever Cortez Masto has put into writing. We don’t support it.” 

For Len George, Senator Cortez Masto’s Office gave the tribe an unrealistically short time to fully consider the new proposal. 

“So there’s times where we feel that we’re getting kind of pushed to the side or we’re being forced to do things that aren’t necessarily what we want to do. Like I was saying, that they needed a decision by next Friday … that just wasn’t going to happen in 12 hours.  

“And again, like I said, our Council has always been against the expansion. For our intent, we’ve never gone before our representatives or other representatives that we’ve met on the Hill asking you for anything.  

“Our thing is, we’re here to protect cultural resources in the lands that our people roamed on. That was our ancestral land. So we’ve never asked for anything other than the expansion … that’s no on the expansion, and that’s what will be decided by the Senate and the House.” 

A nearly full moon rising over the Stillwater Range and Stillwater Wilderness Study Area, 10/02/2017. The proposed withdrawal of public land to expand Bravo Range B-20 will cause the bombing range to nearly adjoin the Stillwater WSA – image – CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus Photography

The Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act as proposed, says the language regarding the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe is in response to requests from the Tribe. 

The bill directs the Department of the Interior to establish four Tribal Cultural Protection Areas, comprising nearly 79,000 acres to protect and preserve cultural and religious sites of interest to the Tribe.    

Louderback Mountains – 18,135 acres
Clan Alpine Mountains – 12,360 acres
Chalk Mountain – 1,382 acres
Sand Springs Mountains – 46,968 acres.    

The bill provides for the continuation of hunting and fishing in these areas, in coordination with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.  

The Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act would add nearly 11,000 acres to the reservation, almost doubling the tribe’s land holdings, which may be used at the tribe’s discretion, with the exception of gaming: 

Dixie Meadows: 800 acres of land previously acquired by the Navy.
Cocoon Mountain: 1,088 acres currently managed by the BLM.
Fox Peak Tribal Trust Lands: 8,836 acres currently managed by the BLM (encompasses the Tribe’s Origin Site, according to the legislation) 

In addition, the Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act provides for the creation of an Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for the newly expanded bombing ranges within two years of passage.  

The proposed IRP would provide for management of natural and cultural resources and be developed in consultation with affected Indian Tribes. Regular public reviews of the new ranges are planned, but Len George is skeptical. 

George says that when a tribal member or the Tribe wants to start a business, all the fees and considerations must be completed before the business can open. George has little trust that the Navy will make good on its promises once the ranges have been expanded. There is no mechanism for accountability, says George. 

“That’s been our stance with the Navy is that … we don’t mind … if you guys are gonna do this, then make sure you guys do all this before they, the lands are … before the base expansion is complete. 

“Don’t wait until after because their stance is, ‘Oh well, we’ll get, we’ll take the land but we’ll do all that after we, after we get the land.’  

“Everything that we have to do, we have to do before the whole process even starts, and then once they say okay, then we could go ahead and do whatever we’re going to do, but in the Navy’s case, the fact that they want to take it now and then do it later … and then not be held accountable for not doing it, not doing what they’re supposed to be doing like with the cultural surveys or assessments or whatever they have to do for the land. 

“I believe that’s what happened in the original expansion that they had where they got 200,000 acres the first time 20 years ago. They said they were going to do this, and to this day, they haven’t done what they were supposed to do. They didn’t do any other cultural surveys or assessments, and again, they’re not held accountable for that.” 

The NAS Fallon public information officer says that all responses to media questions about the Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act must be cleared through Washington, DC. The Ally made a request for comment on Friday and expects to hear back from Navy officials this week.  

Conservation and the Transfer of Public Lands 

Four public lands bills are part of the Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act.  

Churchill County  

In Churchill County, home to NAS Fallon, the Act would transfer 50,000 acres of Federal land to the County. 

Should the County sell the land to the highest bidder for some form of economic development, five percent of the proceeds are earmarked for the state’s “general education program.” Ninety-five percent of the funds would go to a Churchill County special account that can be used for acquisition of land in the County within a wilderness or National Conservation Area (NCA) designated by the Act, land that protects other environmentally significant land, a Marine Protected Area (MPA), or land that secures public access to federal land for recreational purposes.  

Lander County 

The text of the proposed transfer of public lands to Lander County is taken from Senator Jackie Rosen’s stand-alone bill, S.3465, the Lander County Land Management and Conservation Act, of which Senator Cortez Masto is an original co-sponsor. 

The Department of the Interior would convey 18 parcels of federal land (including mineral rights) for use by the County for watershed protection, recreation, and parks.  

Some federal lands will be transferred specifically for airport improvement.  

Pershing County 

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 awarded land grants to railroad companies based on the amount of track they constructed. For every mile of track, the company got 10 square miles of land. For 20 miles on each side of the rail line, the government gave the railway every odd numbered lot in the Public Land Survey System. 

Contemporary land managers struggle to affect a variety of conservation and development aspirations because of the highly segmented pattern of ownership. The most populace third of Pershing County is made up of checkerboard lands. 

Senator Cortez Masto’s bill establishes a Checkerboard Lands Resolution Area in Pershing County. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Pershing County would jointly select parcels of eligible land to be offered for sale or exchange. The amount of land to be transferred is not delineated. 

If the land is sold for development, the proceeds would be divvied up in proportions similar to the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act (SNPLMA) of 1998. 

Five percent would go to the state for education. Ten percent would go to the County. Eighty-five percent of the proceeds would go to a special BLM account for the acquisition of land from willing sellers in the County within wilderness areas.  

The stated goals of the land acquisitions would be: to protect environmentally significant land such as sage grouse habitat or lands to aid in water conservation or wildfire restoration; for projects that secure public access to federal land for recreational purposes; and lands that improve checkerboard management.  

The bill would also authorize the conveyance of 10 acres to Pershing County for use as a cemetery.  

Seven New Wilderness Areas 

The Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act would create seven new wilderness areas encompassing 136,054 acres, along with the accompanying release of 48,600 acres of wilderness study areas.  

According to language in the legislation, this wilderness proposal has the support of Pershing County, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Pew Charitable Trusts, and others in the conservation community.  

Specifically, the following areas would be designated:  

Cain Mountain – 12, 339 acres
Bluewing – 24,900 acres 
Selenite Peak – 22,822 acres 
Mount Limbo – 11,855 acres 
North Sahwave – 13,875 acres 
Grandfathers – 35,339 acres 
Fencemaker – 14,942 acres  

The Harry Reid Model of Nevada Public Lands Bill

Patrick Donnelly is Nevada State Director, Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). For Donnelly and the CBD, the scope of the bill is far too broad. 

“We have this proposed Naval air base expansion, and then these four county lands bills are kind of getting tagged on. And even if we had no objection to the contents of those bills, and we absolutely do, we should have a discussion about what the relevance of flood control infrastructure in Lander County has to do with the National Defense Authorization Act. Why are these bills getting stuffed into the NDAA when they have absolutely no military purpose whatsoever?” 

Donnelly and Center for Biological Diversity worked on the effort to prevent the exploration for oil in the Ruby Mountains, and Senator Cortez Masto wrote and introduced legislation to protect the Rubies. The Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act inherits language from Senator Cortez Masto’s stand-alone bill, S.258, the Ruby Mountains Protection Act. 

The language would prohibit oil and gas leasing within the approximately 309,272 acres of federal land and interests in the Ruby Mountains subdistrict of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest by withdrawing those lands from all forms of operation under the mineral leasing laws. 

For Donnelly and the CBD, Senator Cortez Masto was an ally during the fight over oil exploration in the Ruby Mountains, but regarding lands bills, the Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups are thought of as outsiders for rejecting what Donnelly calls the “Harry Reid Model of Nevada Public Lands Bills.” 

“I would say that as a general rule, Senator Cortez Masto’s Office listens to what we have to say, but we are not among the quote unquote, ‘stakeholder groups’ that hash these things out,” Donnelly said by phone. 

The bill is, in concept, akin to the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act of 1998. The federal government sold land around Las Vegas for development. Proceeds from the sale of the lands have been distributed in 17 rounds of funding. Since 1998, the BLM reports that $3,075,155,320 has been generated through the sale of federal land. The money has been used to acquire sensitive lands and fund a wide variety of conservation projects. 

Donnelly says swapping conservation dollars for sprawl is a net loss for the environment. 

“There’s the Harry Reid model of Nevada Lands bills, where you sell off public lands, and to ameliorate the environmentalists you designate wilderness. And the quote unquote, “stakeholders” who get invited to the table for that are people who are already in agreement with the fundamental premise. People who have already accepted that, yeah, we should sell off public lands and then designate wilderness as compensation.  

“We object to that, that very premise we call a quid pro quo wilderness, where you designate wilderness, but you do some horrible trade off in exchange. And since we really object to that premise and will never support a bill that does such a thing, we are, and others who disagree with that premise are, by and large excluded from the discussions about the specifics on these bills.” 

 Senator Cortez Masto was a stalwart protecting the Ruby Mountains says Donnelly, and he is glad to see the language in the The Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act, but at what price?

“We were at the forefront of the campaign to save the Ruby Mountains and have been supporters of the Ruby Mountains Protection Act, but if the price of the Ruby Mountains Protection Act is to give a half million acres of land of the Navy to drop bombs on, then throw that Act out. It’s not worth it. It shouldn’t even be a part of the same discussion. We shouldn’t, we shouldn’t have this mentality that if you’re going to conserve something, you got to destroy something else. Like if we want to save the Rubies, we should save the Rubies because it’s a special place, not as compensation for letting the military seize our public lands.  

“That whole framework is so severely flawed. And, you know, we’re seeing it across the state, we’re fighting against the Clark County Lands Bill, where Clark County wants to dramatically expand urban sprawl in exchange for designating some wilderness.

“We see it with the Washoe County Lands Bill proposal, which drew so much ire last year. And these military, the military expansion is kind of the same thing, this quid pro quo. And we argue that it is not an even trade and that we shouldn’t be embarking on such endeavors because ultimately, the net balance is a loss for the environment,” Donnelley said. 

Douglas County 

Language regarding the transfer of public lands in Douglas County came from Senator Cortez Masto’s stand-alone bill, S.2890, the Douglas County Economic Development and Conservation Act.  

The language directs the Secretary of Agriculture (USFS) and the Secretary of the Interior (BLM) to convey certain federal lands in Douglas County to the County or the State of Nevada to be used for conservation of wildlife or natural resources, flood control, or public parks.  

If the conveyed lands are not used in a manner consistent with the Act, the lands will revert back to the United States. The County may also acquire the federal reversionary interest in some lands.  

The Secretary of the Interior must conduct at least one sale of 59.5 acres of certain federal lands to qualified bidders and may identify up to an additional 10,000 acres of additional lands for sale. The lands are to be selected jointly by the Department of the Interior and the County. The proceeds from the sales are to be distributed in a similar fashion with the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act of 1998. 

Five percent goes to the State for general education programs and 10 percent to the county to implement the Douglas County Open Space and Agricultural Implementation Plan. Eighty-five percent goes to a special fund in the U.S. Treasury to be used by the Interior Secretary to acquire environmentally sensitive land in the county.  

Regarding Douglas County, the bill is specific.

  • Conveys 67 acres to the State of Nevada to be managed within the Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park.  
  • Directs 13 acres to be cooperatively managed by the County and the U.S. Forest Service for trailhead and parking purposes for the North Tahoe Rim Trail.
  • Conveys 7,777 acres of BLM-owned parcels to Douglas County for various land management purposes. 5,326 acres would be used for flood control management areas and water resources infrastructure. Nearly 2,500 acres would be used for recreation and other public purposes.
  • Disposes of 59.5 acres of BLM lands for the purposes of economic development, with proceeds eligible for projects to protect the floodplain along the Carson River and surrounding environment.
  • Resolves a years-long land management dispute of Dance Hill, by directing the U.S. Forest Service to convey 1,084 acres to the County (historically used for OHV use and open space recreation) for an Open Space Recreation Area, and 724 acres to the Washoe Tribe for cultural and ceremonial purposes.  
  • Conveys approximately 2,669 acres of important cultural sites to the Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada.
  • Promotes the management of sage-grouse habitat by designating nearly 12,400-acres of the new Burbank Canyons Wilderness area, and releases to multiple-use 1,065 acres of the Burbank Canyons Wilderness Study area (acres to be released fall on the Lyon County side of the border).  
  • Directs 187.6 acres to be issued a Special-Use Permit to improve the management of certain Forest Service parcels within the County’s boundaries.

Of the four lands bills, for Patrick Donnelly, the Douglas County land transfers would have the greatest impact on people. 

“I don’t really have my finger on the pulse of Douglas County, but I don’t feel like we necessarily have heard about how Douglas County people feel about that kind of new development coming to town. Where’s the water going to come from? The Carson River is a highly appropriated resource.  

“Those questions are true for all the lands bills, but Douglas County, is a, it’s not an urban area, but it’s a developed area with, 100,000 residents or something like that. So I think that’s the bill that’s going to have the most tangible effect on the lives of Nevadans.”  

Opinions Vary Widely 

While Center for Biological Diversity opposes the Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act, the Conservation Lands Foundation and Friends of Nevada Wilderness published a glowing review of the legislation on October 9. 

It’s an old story for the Fallon Paiute Shoshone tribe. Len George says he is grudgingly resigned to the double standard. He and the Tribal Council are under no illusions. George says the U.S. Government will do what it needs to do regardless of what he or the Tribe may say or do. 

“Again, they did mention in the very first meeting we had was, it doesn’t matter what you do. It doesn’t matter what you say. This expansion is going to go through whether you like it or not. And basically, that’s what’s happening.” 

For Amber Torres and the Walker River Paiute Tribe, the expansion of the Naval Air Station gave opportunity to right old wrongs and establish better communications with the Navy moving forward. 

“Well, I think definitely that the Fallon Naval Air Station is going to be willing to have that ongoing consultation. There’s positions that have also been hired, tribal liaisons. And I think that creates a sense of trust and would build a sense of rapport that we have not had before. And, you know, we would actually be included at the table instead of asked to join afterwards. So again, I think that this whole process really brought all the tribes to the table for their feedback and their input, where we were not before.” 


Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his work.