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Public input needed for final draft EIS on U.S. Navy range expansion

Steve Ranson
Nevada News Group

Churchill County commissioners met last week on Wednesday to review the U.S. Navy’s final Environmental Impact Statement that was released Jan. 10 on the Fallon Range Training Complex’s expansion and modernization.

A public hearing is slated for Jan. 28 from 5-7 p.m. at the Fallon Convention Center.

Although not required, commissioners want a final meeting to allow residents to comment on the Navy’s plan and to show the county’s concerns about moving ahead with the project. The EIS says the preferred alternative would have no significant impacts on cultural or biological resources, and only “minimal” impacts on the greater sage grouse.

The Navy proposes to renew existing public land withdrawal of 202,859 acres which expires late next year. The renewal includes 27,359 acres for Bravo-16, 53,547 acres for Bravo-17, 29,012 acres for Bravo-19, 21,576 acres for Bravo-20, 68,804 acres for Dixie Valley Training Area and 2,561 acres for Shoal Site. In addition, the Navy is proposing to withdraw and reserve for military use about 604,789 acres of additional public land, and acquire about 65,160 acres of non-federal land.

The Navy said lands withdrawn in 1953 through Public Land Order 898 are permanently withdrawn and do not expire until November 2021. The Navy said in 2019 it will not withdraw about 76,000 acres around Bell Mountain east of both State Highway 361 to Gabbs and the Navy’s Bravo 17 range. The Navy will also keep the earthquake road open to the eastern base of Fairview Mountain.

Since the initial announcement was made in September 2016, the Navy made its initial public announcement for withdrawal, and since that time, both the military and commissioners have received thousands of comments regarding the acquisition of more land for the FRTC. The FRTC covers a five-county area that includes airspace, land ranges and electronic systems used primarily for air and ground training activities.

Jeremy Drew, project manager for Resources Concepts, Inc., has been working with commissioners on the FRTC modernization project since the onset. As a cooperative agency, the commission has been working on a nondisclosure agreement, and during the past year, commissioners have met with Navy officials from both Fallon and Navy Southwest San Diego, the Pentagon, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office and Nevada’s congressional delegation consisting of Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen and Rep. Mark Amodei.

“Churchill County pushed hard to have another public meeting on Jan. 28 to let the Navy know how they (the community) feels about the proposal,” Drew said.

Drew said the Navy will not formally respond to comments.

“We thought it was important for the Navy to talk to the folks on the ground who will be impacted by this,” Drew added.

At their next meeting on Feb. 6, commissioners will submit final comments to the Navy. After another review, Drew said the Navy will sign a Record of Decision with its recommendations to Congress and that begins the legislative process. At a meeting last year in Fernley, Amodei said Congress should make a decision on the withdrawal plan no later than mid-summer.

Drew said the county did not support the first two alternative plans but favors the third alternative, which has been updated. Originally, the FRTC plan stated the third alternative proposes no changes for B-19 (30 miles south of Fallon) although commissioners asked the Navy to relocate the SEALs training from B-16 to that range, which will not occur.

In assessing Churchill County’s proposals for B-16, Drew said the county suggested shrinking the range to avoid closure of Sand Canyon and Simpson roads. Alternative 3 avoids closure of Simpson Road. B-17 (30 miles east of Fallon) will see the largest proposal for land withdrawal. According to the Navy’s proposal, “the expanded range would leave State Route 839 (to Gabbs) in its current configuration, but would expand eastward, requiring the rerouting of State Route 361. B-17 would also expand southward, requiring the relocation of a portion of the Paiute Pipeline.”

Drew said commissioners seek to minimize the withdrawal areas to the fullest extent possible.

The county also sought compensation for private land owners affected by the proposal; compensation for ranchers; support for the full release of Wildlife Study Areas (WSA) at Job Peak, Stillwater and Clan Alpine; provide similar levels of access to public lands surround the withdrawal area; and the need for diligent management for combatting wildfires and of wild horses.

Drew said the Navy told him that Congress “makes the call” on withdrawing the WSAs.

Additionally, Drew said the Navy will close public access to all ranges but provide requested access for cultural visits and 15 days for a bighorn sheep hunt. Drew said it appears Dixie Valley north of U.S. Highway 50 will not be affected.

“It’s not their intent to closing public access or changing how its manage except for tall power lines,” Drew said.

As for geothermal development and exploration, Drew said that would be allowed west of the Dixie Valley road, not east.

Drew said he received assurances the Navy would rebuild Lone Tree Road, the main access to B-16, which is primarily used for SEALs (Sea, Air, and Land teams). At one of their January 2019 meetings, commissioners expressed concern about heavy military vehicles using the road and advised the Navy that the road was not constructed for large vehicles. The B-16 range is also located in the emergency overflow for flood management.

Drew said no decision has been made on access for a proposed Interstate highway that could cross the range. The Nevada Department of Transportation’s proposed B-2 corridor would run through the northeast corner of the Navy’s Bravo-16 range.

Zip Upham, public information officer at NAS Fallon, said Friday concerns about the size of the range became an issue with the Navy’s warfighting capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Discussion began on the range modernization and expansion at least seven years ago under the Obama administration. In previous interviews with commanding officers at NAWDC (previously the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center), the Lahontan Valley News learned of their assessments which called for the Navy to tweak and expand pilot training at NAWDC.

The Navy said in its Jan. 10 release “The proposed modernization would provide training capabilities that are more realistic and are needed to meet changing aviation and ground training requirements, while maintaining the safety of local communities.”

Retired Capt. David Halloran, who became the face of the Navy’s proposal to various groups around western Nevada, said all deploying aviation and naval special warfare units train on Fallon ranges. With advanced weaponry, Halloran said more air space is need to launch missiles toward their targets or for Navy SEALs to conduct more realistic worldwide training. According to Halloran, pilots need at least 12 to 14 miles to launch their missiles toward targets, and a larger range will provide 99.9 percent accuracy.

Since the mid-1990s, Halloran said Fallon’s training has increased with the Navy’s Top Gun and other schools combining their operations to form the current Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. He said NAWDC now comprises eight schools and provides better training than what pilots receive on deployments.