The United States Navy has proposed to quadruple the size of the existing 200,000-acre Fallon Range Training Complex (FRTC) to, according to the Navy, better and more safely accommodate training for both ground combat forces and a new generation of air-borne weapons.
To expand the base located some 60 miles east of Reno in Churchill County, the Navy and the US Bureau of Land Management had to follow the environmental accounting requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), to include the creation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
On March 12 of 2020, a final Record of Decision (ROD) on the EIS was published in the Federal Register. But the ROD left many stakeholders dissatisfied, to include Churchill County.
The proposed expansion is timed to coincide with the need for Congressional approval to renew the Navy’s current public land withdrawal, set to expire in November of 2021. The Navy must bring its renewal request to Congress in the form of a bill. That bill is intended to be considered as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a gargantuan document that funds the US military and must pass by the end of each calendar year.
The County engaged Nevada’s Congressional delegation for help with unresolved issues regarding the expansion. 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 bill is an effort to satisfy the remaining stakeholder problems and enable the Navy to expand its training ranges.
In a letter to the Commanding Officer of Naval Air Station Fallon, Captain Evan Morrison, dated October 15 of this year, the Churchill County Commissioners wrote that they were “disappointed” to see very few of the County’s concerns initially addressed in the Trump Administration’s legislative proposal to enact the expansion drafted earlier this summer.
“Yes, the Navy is a big part of our community, and we really like the Navy,” Churchill County Commission chair Peter Olsen said by phone. “They’ve been, in general, very good partners to our community. The people that they bring to our community are … they really add to our community overall.”
Olsen acknowledges that the Navy adds a lot to the local economy with a significant civilian payroll and other operational and ancillary spending. He is also clear to say the County Commissioners are proud to support the Navy and its role in the defense of the nation.
And though Olsen says there has been robust and positive communication between the County and Navy regarding the base expansion over the past four years, the County is feeling brushed aside.
“A lot of this feels like the Navy’s kind of rolling over on top of this in a lot of different areas,” Olsen said.
In an appendix to its October 15 letter, the County lists numerous unresolved issues to include the actual boundaries of bombing areas B-17 and B-20, which the County contends are too broad.
The Navy has said that the larger the bombing range, the more certainty that munitions will not stray from designated areas, but the particulars of Navy munitions and their delivery is a national secret. The County is not at the table, but where bombing range borders are drawn are of critical importance. A mile or two in either direction could make a decided difference on the ground for the County.
“We are losing Pole Line Road to the north. We’re crowded on East County Road. There’s a mine up there in the north part of the County that has some of the rare earth minerals in it,” Olsen said. “It [the range expansion] makes it more difficult for somebody to extract those and get them out. The access is restricted.
“So we’ve fought all those different areas to try and preserve the ability for our people to have access, and economically, to maintain the viability of some of these operations that are out there.”
But those and other matters remain unresolved. The Navy would not comment for this article except to say that the Record of Decision accurately reflects their operational needs.
The Transfer of Public Lands to Churchill County
Senator Cortez Masto’s Northern Nevada Rural Land Management, Conservation, and Military Readiness Act contains language that would transfer public land to several rural Nevada counties including Churchill County.
The land can be sold for economic development. In Pershing, Lander and Douglas counties the land transfers are seemingly unrelated to national defense, but for Commissioner Olsen, the transfer of 50,000 acres of federal land to Churchill County is necessary compensation for expansion of the training ranges.
“I’m very aware of the sensitivity to the release of public lands,” Olsen said.
“So let’s just go back to how much private land is the Navy going to purchase in their expansion,” Olsen continued. “It exceeds the amount of land that we’re talking about getting released to the County.
“Then we look at where the County’s asking for this. It’s not culturally or environmentally sensitive area at all, but it has a lot of potential for economic development for the community.”
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 other parcel, which created a checkerboard pattern of public/private land ownership across northern Nevada to include Churchill County.
As part of the base expansion, the County is looking for the Navy to come together on a solution to the checkerboard land issue in the County.
“It is an impediment to economic development, to saving areas that need to be protected because you’ve got private and public land intermixed. There’s no physical and legal access from parcel to parcel because they’re just tip to tip at the corners. It’s a very unworkable situation if this is in your community. And there’s certainly a considerable amount of it in our community.
“This (the land transfer) would go a long ways toward unwinding some of that (checkerboard lands) around a key four lane highway that has fiber buried next to it, that has railroad access on the north side of it. It’s a key place to have some economic development in our community. And this would be an offset for the ground that the Navy is buying from private owners. So for the government, the government’s not losing ground, it’s a wash. From that perspective, this isn’t a land grab … nobody can put that handle on it legitimately.
“So we see this as a way to offset some of what the Navy’s … when I mentioned in my earlier comments, the way that the Navy’s footprint is really going to kind of roll over on top of our community, this is a way to offset some of those losses economically to our community.”
The impact of military aircraft on the acoustic environment can be significant. How operations in newly expanded bombing ranges will impact the regional soundscape is unknown. According to the Navy, aircraft will fly higher and be less noticeable than before.
“If I said that nobody is bothered by jet noise in Fallon, that wouldn’t be true, and I have friends that live underneath the flight path and you go visit them and it’s noisy,” Commissioner Olsen said.
“We require the homes to be built to a higher standard there with better insulation and windows, just because of that.
“We have a conservation easement program with the Navy that’s been very popular. We take agricultural lands, and people sell their rights to subdivide. The Navy’s funding these things at 90 percent. The county is funding them at 10 percent.
“What the County gets out of it is, the water stays on the land and we don’t get expansion or growth right around the Navy base.”
Olsen is a licensed and active pilot and says multiplying the size of training areas will undoubtedly have a greater impact on the region, as will the Navy’s transition from the F-18 Hornet to the anecdotally louder F-35 Lightning, an all-weather, stealth, multirole combat aircraft. Olsen says, more than anything, mitigating the impact of jet roar is a factor of pilot discipline.
“A lot of this goes back to the Navy trying to be a good partner and staying on top of their pilots, making them fly the routes that they’ve got, that minimizes the impact to the community.
“From my perspective, we’ll sit in my backyard and we can watch them take off and land and so forth. And it’s kind of enjoyable, but I don’t get a lot of the noise because I’m just far enough away. For the people that are closer, it does impact their lives a little bit and there probably will be a little bigger impact with the new F-35.”
On October 14 of this year, the Churchill County Commission approved Resolution 19-2020, which expressed formal Commission support for Congressman Amodei’s H.R. 6889 and Senator Cortez Masto’s efforts to reach consensus on the public policy questions posed by the Navy’s proposal.
What will happen in Congress regarding the base expansion is difficult to predict.
Commissioner Olsen is not naïve but intent to fully represent stakeholder interests, which, according to Olsen, are being neglected.
“I know our community won’t get everything that we want. That’s not how this goes. But I think there’s a recognition in regards to the impacts to our community. And I just illuminated to the private land that’s going to be lost, and there needs to be an offset, and it would be good to have an economic offset.
“And getting these footprints for B-17 and 20 reduced … making sure this becomes a Special Management Area rather than a military withdrawal. And that there is a defined process for the compensation for the loss of private property, whether that’s mineral rights, water rights, grazing rights.
“We’ve been in the forefront as a county trying to fight for our people that are stakeholders in this, that are owners. The Navy has to be an honest broker and they have to get these people taken care of before any withdrawals can be completed.
“And that has not happened in the past. We still have mineral rights that are orphaned in the middle of bombing ranges from the last withdrawal. So we want teeth put into this thing and funding by Congress to make sure that people are taken care of. It’s only right. These are not willing sellers. It’s being taken from them. And it’s only right that the Navy should have to pay, or our government. It’s the right thing to do.”
The Legislative Clock is Ticking
Any legislation to reauthorize the Navy’s current public lands withdrawal and the land for the additional expansion 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 document has 79 titles, 648 amendments, and 222 related bills. The 2021 NDAA will likely be as vast, but the bill must pass by the end of this calendar year, along with the federal budget for the following year.
In the County’s October 15 letter to the Navy, Commissioner Olsen offered a conditional look forward.
“I sincerely appreciate the offer to meet on a bi-weekly basis,” Commissioner Olsen wrote in the letter. “If the purpose of your offer is to work toward developing consensus legislation using the above-referenced bills as a starting point, I gladly accept the invitation. I would, however, ask that my entire Project Team and key Navy personnel be engaged in these meetings, given that time is of the essence.
“If the purpose of the meetings is to argue the merits of the Navy’s Legislative Proposal and Record of Decision, then I do not believe that to be productive, and would respectfully decline.”
Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his work.