Land rush

There are hazards in federal withdrawals

Military encroachments on federally managed public lands in Nevada led to a study of impacts from military and other uses for state lands.

Military encroachments on federally managed public lands in Nevada led to a study of impacts from military and other uses for state lands.


The Special Nevada Report can be read at the University of North Texas Digital Library at

Last week, U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei was in-state and spoke to a joint session of the Nevada Legislature. Among other things, he said:

“This Congress represents a unique opportunity for Nevada, a Nevada opportunity. When you live in a state that is 85 percent owned by the federal government—which is not a good thing or bad thing, it is simply a fact—then what happens with multiple use of federal land is pretty important when you talk economic development, when we talk about conservation, when we talk about transportation, when we talk about anything and everything, wildfire, you name it. What is new about this one? For three major reasons, this is going to be a different one. In the 116th Congress, the United States Navy is going to come with what is the largest lands bill in the history of the state. About 600,000 acres, already owned by the federal government, are going to be changed from multiple use to not multiple use. … The United States Air Force in the southern part of the state is going to be coming with not quite as big a footprint, but it is expansion time for our war fighters that fly airplanes in the Navy and in the Air Force. OK, that is fine. But the process that we go through with that … this is an opportunity. When you talk about essentially a lands withdrawal that affects transportation, that affects economic development, that affects conservation, that affects wilderness, that affects everything under the sun that we do in this state, it is an opportunity, ladies and gentlemen.”

This is the traditional view of the process that was common in Nevada in the 1950s and ‘60s, before local activism asserted environmental and anti-nuclear concerns. In those earlier days, there was some faith that the federal government and business would deal with the state fairly. But time and experience have taken a toll on that faith. What were once seen as opportunities are now often seen as occasions to be on guard. In this Earth Day week, it might be useful to recall some of the times the state’s faith was rewarded in some ways but also came with downsides and the discovery of information which had been withheld from Nevadans.

On Aug. 19, 1970, for instance, in a statement to the U.S. Environmental Quality Council, the Atomic Energy Commission—a forerunner of the U.S. Energy Department—said that as a result of its weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site, 250 square miles were contaminated by plutonium whose radioactivity can linger for 24,000 years or more and that 49 separate areas were fenced off because of the intensity of contamination.

The AEC had not only not previously informed the state of this—and certainly had not done so before the state consented to the establishment of the test site—but it had spent years denying the dangers of fallout.

Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt, taken by surprise at the AEC statement, nevertheless immediately declared his confidence in the public’s safety, though a news report said he had yet to be briefed on the development by the AEC. That kind of blind faith, too, was common in those days.

The federal government has installed some of its own functions on large swaths of public lands in Nevada—Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and the Pentagon. But the military use is different from the others. The others are available for the public to use. When the Pentagon takes control of public land, it is “withdrawn"—removed from public use.


During the Carter administration effort to install MX missile installations in Nevada and Utah, an Air Force officer called the Nevada desert a “great nuclear sponge.”

That view of the Great Basin leads to federal policy-making that utilizes the basin as a dumping ground for unattractive and dangerous projects. That view is also frequently not informed of the delicate ecology of desert terrain.

Thus, land withdrawals for military purposes and other non-military projects like the Tahoe Reno Industrial Park and I-11 (another Canada-to-Mexico highway) tear up large areas that many Nevadans value while in-state officialdom usually accepts them without skepticism.

Following a major disaster at Lake Denmark Naval Ammunition Depot and nearby Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey in 1926 that left 21 people dead and the depot leveled, federal eyes were cast to other, less populated areas for a replacement. In 1930, the depot was reopened in Hawthorne, Nevada. That was at least done openly. In 2005, an obscure federal agency called the Defense National Stockpile Center chose that same site as the dump for federal stocks of mercury without ever informing the public plainly and clearly in advance what it was planning.

The Reno Army Air Base operated north of Reno from 1942 to 1945. In 1948, an Air National Guard Base opened on the site, becoming Stead Air Force Base in 1951. It closed down again in 1966, the airfield handed off to the City of Reno and other properties sold off to private buyers.

Over the years, as Stead evolved into its own community, it has often seemed that every time someone put a shovel in Stead ground, something nasty was found. On one occasion after construction equipment punctured a steel drum buried underground, the entirety of Stead was evacuated.

With that kind of history, Nevadans in Congress arranged in the Military Lands Withdrawal Act of 1986 for a sweeping report on planned and proposed military projects in the state. It was unfortunate that it did not also mandate that past activities be included, so that some of the hazards in the state’s military installations could have been identified instead of being inadvertently discovered from time to time, as at Stead.

The final report, Special Nevada Report, took five years to prepare and was delivered in 1991. It was compiled by the Air Force, Navy, and U.S. Interior Department, with input from the Army and U.S. Department of Energy. Assisting in its preparation were Science Applications International Corporation and Nevada’s Desert Research Institute. Every effort was made to assure the report was incomprehensible to the everyday reader, from technical jargon to an oddball page-numbering system and no index.

While the report contained hints of the difficulties Nevada faced in dealing with the federal government, such as a section titled “Objects and Armaments Dropped from Aircraft,” it did little for the public. Those who persevered could find useful information, but as an example, there was little in the report on wide rumors of unexploded ordnance in and around the Fallon Naval Air Station and other facilities. The term unexploded appears just four times in the report’s 732 pages. Still, there were indications of 0casual indifference for the lands that federal agencies were using:

“Activities on and in the vicinity of NAS Fallon have eliminated a large portion of the native vegetation. No studies have been conducted which documents effects on plants, fish, and wildlife on and in the vicinity of NAS Fallon from activities associated with the Station. Activities on the bombing ranges of the FRTC [Fallon Range Training Complex] have disturbed native vegetation.”

It is not easy to nail down exactly how much Nevada land is devoted to miliary uses, but the figure 2.9 million acres is usually cited. In the Navy withdrawal referenced by Amodei, the Navy is seeking to add 619,000 acres of federal land and more than 65,000 acres of private land to the Fallon Naval Air Station. That would be an increase of 23.5 percent in Nevada land controlled by the Pentagon—and does not even count the planned Air Force withdrawal.

Rep. Amodei is one of the more moderate Republicans in Congress. His interest in using the planned withdrawals to exploit other opportunities for local governments and business is a time-honored technique for U.S. House members.

But it does not need to stop there. The withdrawals can be an opportunity, not just for economic development, but for education of officialdom on the ecology of the Great Basin and the necessity of Nevadans being informed of hazards up front, before a project is approved. And it can be an opportunity to examine the notion of a state seeing a huge chunk of its acreage being shut off to its residents. Most states are smaller than Nevada. Imagine their reaction if the Pentagon came calling for such large swathes of land.