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.