The US Navy wants to expand the training area for its fighter pilot school at the Naval Air Station in Fallon to four times its current size. KUNR Contributor Brian Bahouth with The Sierra Nevada Ally has the latest update on this controversial proposal.
Since 1944, Navy and Marine Corps pilots have famously refined their air combat techniques at Naval Air Station Fallon. The site has also gained national attention as a backdrop for the original Top Gun movie and its upcoming sequel. But now, new smart weapons can be dropped on a target from farther away than older bombs and the Navy says it needs more room to safely train. Evan Morrison is the commanding officer of NAS Fallon.
“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.”
To expand the base, the National Environmental Policy Act mandates that the Navy produce an Environmental Impact Statement and hold a series of public meetings. Over the past year, an unusual alliance of hunters, miners, ranchers, rockhounds, conservation groups, environmentalists, Native American tribes, and the Nevada state government itself have opposed the expansion in public comments and in writing. They say the proposal has too many negative environmental and economic impacts.
On March 25 of 2019, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed Assembly Joint Resolution 7, a formal statement of opposition to the expansion from the executive and legislative branches of the Nevada State government. The Navy's preferred plan would renew its existing 200,000 acre facility and remove another 620,000 acres of public land.
Captain Morrison says despite nine public meetings, many still do not understand that the expansion will not change the Navy’s operations and is largely a safety measure.
“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."
The final Environmental Impact Statement was issued last month. It was a whopping 4,196 pages long and it analyzes impacts of the expansion on every conceivable aspect from water to wildlife, cultural resources, and the economy. The Navy presented the Final EIS to the public late last month and answered questions. No one other than the Navy spoke in support of the project and many concerns remain over impacts to wildlife and nearby communities.
Amber Torres is chairwoman of the Walker River Pauite Tribe. She attend the meeting and says several wayward bombs have landed on her reservation over time, and the impacts have not been addressed.
"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."
Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe member Donna Cossette was also there. She told the gathering that air base expansion comes with a significant cultural cost for her tribe, the latest in a long line of indignities.
“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 to 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."
Any day now, the Bureau of Land Management will decide how to proceed. Their options include effectively closing the base, renewing only existing boundaries, or allowing the Navy to expand. Once the BLM announces its decision, a bill will be drafted and debated in Congress.
To read more on this topic, visit The Sierra Nevada Ally, which has extensive reporting on the issue.