Desert will still draw UFO fanatics

It's enough to make E.T. phone home, or at least the governor's office. The U.S. Air Force has officially retired the F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter, and that may bode ill for one remarkable and peculiar Nevada institution.

Why, the UFO business, of course.

I'll argue there might not be a UFO phenomenon in Nevada without the top-secret development of the shadowy Nighthawk and other technologically advanced military projects at the Nevada Test Site and Tonopah Test Range.

Don't forget the Bigfoot of all UFOdom, Area 51. Whether it's the latest stealth fighter, the rise of the unmanned Predator drone, or cutting-edge laser technology, the heavily guarded Nevada desert plays an important role in the American military's research and development.

It also provides plentiful unexplained activity in the night sky essential to the UFO business. And business is booming. I'm not just talking about the Little A'Le'Inn at Rachel, where Earthlings are always welcome, and the new Alien Research Center near the entrance to the state's Extraterrestrial Highway just off U.S. 93, 228 miles from Las Vegas.

I'm talking about more than 400 Web sites devoted to UFO and paranormal activity. I'm talking about UFO conventions that draw countless scores of devotees from the farthest reaches of the planet.

Shows on UFOs, crop circles, and cattle mutilation proliferate on the airwaves - and not just on Channel 8.

The Learning, History and Sci-Fi channels generate high ratings with programs on Area 51.

The meteoric phenomenon wouldn't generate a firefly's light without Nevada, whose leaders recognized this - at least from a marketing standpoint - by renaming State Route 375 the Extraterrestrial Highway and having our lieutenant governors playfully promote the interstellar possibilities. (I've long believed Dr. Lonnie Hammargren was from another planet and Lorraine Hunt was out of this world.)

Development of the Nighthawk and its kind are at the heart of it all.

Back in 1989, current Clark County Public Works spokesman Bobby Shelton was an Air Force spokesman with the challenging job of informing the public of the Nighthawk's stealthy existence.

"There's probably a very good chance what they've seen over the years is technology being tested by the U.S. government and the U.S. Air Force," Shelton says with a wink. "There's probably a very good chance that some of that (top secret) stuff is going on today."

As our interview concludes, he cues the "X-Files" theme by adding, "I believe there are certain things in government that people don't need to know."

Spoken like a career military man with Top Secret clearance.

Out at the Alien Research Center, George Harris celebrates Area 51 and the UFO phenomenon with a store and museum. Its Web site features a flying saucer beaming up a cow. Among the messages on his T-shirts: "If aliens are smart enough to travel through space ... then why do they keep abducting the dumbest people on Earth?" and "Some call it mutilation. We call it barbecue."

For the record, Harris is also the finance chairman of the state Republican Party. (Across Nevada, dumbstruck Democrats are saying, "This explains everything.")

Harris pays respect to the UFO culture without losing his sense of humor. Then again, a man with a three-story metal alien in front of his store has to keep his sense of humor.

"We poke fun, but we're also very serious about it," he says. "The Area 51 area is a mecca for all the paranormal activity and UFO research people. Very large groups of people believe the government took the extraterrestrials from New Mexico and moved them out to the desert."

And, it turns out, the true believers and merely curious want to get as close to Area 51 as possible without getting abducted by aliens, or at least by military security. Then they want to drink beer and buy T-shirts.

Harris acknowledges the link between UFO sightings and military technology, but he notes, "It's all true with the exception of physics. There's nothing in physics that allows for some of the phenomena that's taken place. When a circular-shaped saucer moves left, right, up and down, then disappears in a nanosecond, that's hard to explain."

Sounds like Nevada's UFO business will continue to boom for light years to come.

Now, about those crop circles and cattle mutilations.

• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.


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