Off Highway 50 (dubbed "the loneliest highway in America") near the center of Nevada, a sign announces: "Caution -- Low -- Flying Aircraft." Drive past it, and as if you had broken an invisible line, a series of sonic booms shatters the dreamy serenity. Test flights.
"Just the other day I was out in front of my store and a plane came down to just above the level of the power lines. I could actually see the pilot's helmet," says Chris Trease, owner of Smoky Joe's truck stop, in tiny Smoky Valley. Trease says he moved away from west central Nevada to escape the bursts of sound coming from military jets overhead, but they followed him north. "What the hell' s going on?" he asks.
What's going on is a nearly 1 million-acre land and airspace grab by the armed forces. Ironically, the military's increased homesteading has been sparked by the end of the Cold War and the declining need for an American military presence abroad. The Department of Defense has reduced its military force by a third, down to 1.4 million. Still, it plans to add to its 25 million acres in order to test its latest weaponry and to train pilots, including whole fighter wings returning home from closed bases in Europe and the Philippines. The additions include:
200,000 acres to the Fallon (Nev.) Naval Air Station for enlarged bombing ranges;
331,000 acres to the Fort Irwin (Calif.) National Training Center for ground maneuvers;
25,600 acres to the White Sands (N.M.) Missile Range for missile drop zones;
14,200 acres to the Yuma (Ariz. and Calif.) Training Range Complex, for an expanded bombing range;
12,000 acres to the Mountain Home (Idaho) Training Range for an expanded bombing range.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell recommended the expansion to President Clinton in 1993, and the administration has yet to challenge any of the military's expansions.
This, even though the Defense Department's stewardship of its Western lands insp ires little confidence. Its nuclear testing in Nevada in the 1950s created a legacy of cancer in the region. The military also has been blamed for bombing Indian lands, causing huge waterfowl and fish die-offs from military waste, and spilling thousands of gallons of highly toxic jet fuel.
The Defense Department counters that its military operation areas -- much of which are off-limits to the public -- support nature preservation. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, credits the Air Force for protecting endangered peregrine falcons within its military air corridors). But there also have been recent, high-profile accidents, including a 1991 fire ignited by a jet's flare that scorched 32,000 acres in Alaska's Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Similarly, a flare apparently caused a 1993 blaze that charred 20,000 acres in southern Nevada.
The armed forces insist the land and airspace they've earmarked are needed. "The rationale behind expansion at the National Training Center [in Fort Irwin, Calif.] is to provide enough space so that units can properly move and train; the current space at NTC is not sufficient," explains Army Staff Sgt. Gerrold Johnson. Daniel Smith of the watchdog organization Center for Defense Information questions the Army's logic. "The basic argument for taking more land is the increased range of modern weapons systems," he says. "It's true, but that raises the question: Do you always have to fire at maximum range during training?"
Meanwhile, the military's planned Western takeover has created an unusual coalition of those opposed to what they call the "militarization of the American West": ranchers and sagebrush rebels in Nevada fighting for states' rights, environmentalists in California, subsistence hunters in Alaska, outdoorsmen in Idaho, and Native Americans in New Mexico.
"The routes they're proposing go right over one of our primary subsistence hunting areas," says Air Force veteran Bill Miller, of Dot Lake, Alaska. The Elmendorf Air Force Base is expanding its flight zone nearby.
"We've had our houses shook," says Miller. "I've called operations [at Elmendorf]. They say 'Our fighters are high.' I say 'Bull, I can count the rivets.' "