Why vast Air Force training range in Nevada feels ‘small,’ needs to grow

Deep inside the Nevada Test and Training Range, nervous jackrabbits patrol the streets of a war-ravaged town made from metal shipping containers.

Range officials call this place Gotham City, and like its comic-book namesake, it has seen more than its share of trouble.

Bullet holes and bomb damage scar the city’s inanimate inhabitants, mostly trucks, tanks and targets shaped like armed bad guys.

Though Gotham is quiet on this day, its mock apartment buildings, alleys, airport and power plant have seen countless live-fire exercises — coordinated assaults, ambushes and rescue missions by ground troops and aircraft rehearsing for the real thing.

“We prepare these folks for war,” says Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Schmidt, chief of strategic plans for the range. “There’s no other place in the military that replicates this threat environment.”

Now officials want to modernize that training ground 40 miles northwest of Las Vegas. They want to make it even more realistic and menacing. But the only way to do that, they say, is to acquire more land.

Schmidt acknowledges how crazy that might sound.

The Nevada Test and Training Range already covers more than 2.9 million acres in Clark, Lincoln and Nye counties. It’s like someone put a fence around an area twice the size of Delaware and kicked out everyone who didn’t have proper security clearance.

In the restricted airspace above all that land, opposing forces can fly and fight across a battlefield 150 miles long and 110 miles wide.

“That sounds like a lot, but it gets pretty small pretty quick,” says Schmidt, especially from the cockpit of America’s new generation of combat aircraft, built to fly faster and strike targets from farther away.

So the Air Force is asking for more.

The proposed 301,500-acre expansion, now under environmental review, includes 278,000 acres in the neighboring Desert National Wildlife Refuge.

Range officials want to use the refuge land to position new radar systems and other electronic threats capable of testing advanced warplanes like the F-35. But the move would cut off public access to most of the rough, unpaved Alamo Road, the main route through the heart of the refuge.

Roger Christensen, environmental administrator for the range, says this was “the least amount of land we could look at” to achieve the goal of increasing the range’s capacity and capabilities.

The Air Force also wants primary jurisdiction over 846,000 acres of refuge land it currently shares control of with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The change would allow the military to use that area to conduct exercises and maybe build more training facilities like Gotham City. As it stands now, that portion of Desert National Wildlife Refuge can’t be accessed by the public and can’t be used by the Air Force for much of anything because it was proposed as wilderness decades ago and must be maintained as such until a final decision is made about its protected status.

Proposal for public lands

“We can’t use the south range the way we’d like to,” Schmidt says, and that puts a strain on the rest of the massive training area, which is already stretched to the limit.

Air Force officials estimate the range is currently operating at about 140 percent of capacity. To maximize its use, access to the prized airspace is timed down to 15-minute increments, with exercises literally stacked on top of each other and unfolding simultaneously at different altitudes.

What allows them to do all that is the bubble of empty air above the range, one of the only large expanses of sky left in the nation where private and commercial aircraft are not allowed to fly.

Schmidt says that’s why the range is so important, and why it needs to be used to its fullest. “The Air Force isn’t going to get any more airspace. It’s bad and it’s only going to get worse,” he says.

Critics of the expansion counter with this: If the Air Force gets its way, nearly 70 percent of the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 will be locked away from public use, maybe forever.

Cleaning up after itself

The road to Gotham City cuts through a swath of desert marked with radiation warning signs.

The land here is contaminated with depleted uranium from armor-piercing bullets fired from the air at tanks and other fortified vehicles. More than 100 of those targets, some dating back to World War I, can still be seen in the distance, parked neatly in rows as they wait to be cleaned up and repurposed.

“Let’s face it: We’re having an impact on the land,” says Christensen during a rare tour of the secure site on a recent Sunday. The goal is to limit that impact as much as possible while still completing the task at hand.

“We’ve got to train. We’ve got to get the mission done,” he says.

Christensen has plenty of ideas for how to use the additional land the Air Force is seeking, but one thing the range doesn’t need is another “impact area” for actual bombs and missiles. What they’re after instead, he says, is more space around the existing target areas so they can realistically deploy the sort of modern defenses that will actually challenge pilots and their advanced aircraft.

The additional land at the eastern edge of the range also would provide a larger safety buffer so pilots can attack ground targets at faster speeds and higher altitudes without worrying about stray bombs falling onto unsecured areas.

Christensen says expanding the range won’t change the way the Air Force manages it. Range officials will continue to protect wildlife, archaeological resources and historic sites on the land, just as they do now, he says.

As proof, he points at the landscape around him, most of which has been in military hands since World War II. Instead of the crater-scarred moonscape people might expect, much of the range is unspoiled desert, every bit as pristine as what visitors find in the open portion of the refuge next door.

He says the Air Force works hard to clean up after itself. Workers go out regularly to clear away the remnants of targets and the weapons unleashed on them.

Christensen and his crew also help manage wildlife on the range, from watering wild horses to partnering with the Nevada Department of Wildlife on a bighorn sheep telemetry study or a small, tightly controlled sheep hunt once a year.

Concern for animals, identity

Late in the range tour, as if on cue, a small herd of pronghorn antelope dashes across the road in front of Christensen’s truck.

He says antelope are plentiful on the north range, but these are the first he’s seen this far south.

Christy Smith worries about these and other animals on the range.

Smith is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s project leader for the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex. She isn’t on this particular range tour, but members of her staff have visited the site with Christensen before.

She says her agency supports the Air Force and its mission, but any expansion that would carve more land out of the refuge is cause for concern. Specifically, refuge officials fear the loss of more public access and the possible impacts to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and other wildlife from the construction and use of new roads, equipment pads and aircraft runways.

Then there is the broader question of what happens to Desert’s identity should it lose so much of its land and character, Smith says. “Will it still be a refuge? I don’t know.”

“We feel like this is a unique place,” she says. “We’re trying to conserve what’s there now, because once it’s gone it’s not going to come back.”

Air Force officials insist they are listening to concerns from their neighbors and making changes to their plans where possible. Based on feedback from a series of public meetings late last year, the boundaries of the proposed expansion were adjusted to maintain public access to the refuge’s popular Hidden Forest Cabin hiking trail and an area outside the Nye County town of Beatty that residents wanted for recreation and tourism.

Another round of public meetings is slated for December, after the Air Force releases the first draft of its environmental impact statement for the range renewal and expansion. That document is scheduled to come out in November.

Congress is expected to vote on the final version of the Air Force’s proposal sometime before November 2021, when the military’s current hold on the entire 2.9 million-acre range is set to expire.

From the front seat of his truck, Christensen says he doesn’t know what Congress might do, but the Air Force will be ready regardless.

“It’s like anything in military,” he says. “We’ll ask for what we think we need, but we’ll make the most out of what we get.”

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @refriedbrean on Twitter.

Bicyclists ride empty Interstate 11 before it opens Aug. 9
Southern Nevada Bicycle Coalition sponsored a 25-mile ride on the yet-to-be-opened Interstate 11 to highlight bicycle and motorist safety. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1 dead after shooting near Sahara and the Strip in Las Vegas
Lt. Ray Spencer briefs the news media on a shooting at Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South that left one dead. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Family remembers deceased mother
Family members of Adriann Gallegos remember her. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
2 in custody after chase
Two people were in custody after a chase involving Nevada Highway Patrol and Nye County Sheriff"s office deputies ended in southwest Las Vegas. Las Vegas police blocked off Rainbow Boulevard north of Tropicana Avenue around 1 a.m. Wednesday. Law enforcement personnel prepared to tow a black sedan as part of their investigation. It's not certain what precipitated the chase or where and when it started. Check back for updates.
Police Officer's Vehicle Was Taken During Shooting
Video from body worn camera footage released by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Wednesday shows an officer realizing his police vehicle has been taken during the chaos of the Route 91 shooting. It was later recovered at Sunrise hospital with the keys in the ignition and nothing removed. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
See Kitty Hawk’s flying car cruise over Lake Las Vegas
Kitty Hawk takes their flying car for a ride in the company’s hidden test facility in Lake Las Vegas. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Watch Las Vegas police wild pursuit through busy Las Vegas streets
An intense chase near Downtown Las Vegas ends after gunfire is exchanged as the suspect flees on busy streets and ends up near an elementary school. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
Man shot strolling through park
A man was hospitalized early Tuesday morning after being shot while walking in a central Las Vegas park. Las Vegas police say the man and a woman were in Molasky Park just after midnight when the man was shot. The pair ran to a nearby supermarket where a security guard called for help. The man was hospitalized and as of 3 a.m. was in stable condition. Police have yet to identify the shooter and no suspects are in custody.
Police investigating shooting at east valley apartment complex
No one was injured late Monday night after someone fired shots at a vehicle at an east valley apartment complex. Police responded just before midnight to the Hamptons Apartments, 3070 S. Nellis Blvd. Someone fired shots at a vehicle that was leaving the complex, and struck the vehicle. Another bullet struck a nearby apartment building. The shooter or shooters remain at-large.
Suspect fires at Las Vegas police before officers shoot, end wild pursuit
An intense chase near Downtown Las Vegas ends after gunfire is exchanged as the suspect flees on busy streets and ends up near an elementary school. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
Hundreds Attend Slides, Rides and Rock and Roll in North Las Vegas
Hundreds attended the inaugural slides, rides and rock and roll event in North Las Vegas Saturday. The event featured a car show, water slide park and live music. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
It's All Rainbows At The Center's New Cafe
The Gay and Lesbian Center of Southern Nevada (The Center) introduced its new coffeeshop, Little Rainbow Cafe, in June. Rainbows are everywhere, even in the lattes and toast, and employees wear t-shirts with the quote "Be a rainbow in someone's cloud." Owner Ben Sabouri said the concept is "built around the idea of, you know, be kind and treat everybody the same." (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Get a Rainbow Latte at the The Center's Little Rainbow Cafe
The Center, a community center for the LGBTQ community of Southern Nevada, has a new cafe. Little Rainbow Cafe serves up a pride-inspired signature "Rainbow Latte." (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pedestrian killed trying to cross Sahara
A pedestrian was killed Friday trying to cross Sahara Avenue near Maryland Parkway about 5 a.m. A sedan struck the pedestrian while the person was outside the crosswalk between Maryland Parkway and Pardee Place, according to Las Vegas police. Police also said the driver of the sedan remained at the site of the crash. The pedestrian was pronounced dead at the scene. This is the 75th fatal crash that Las Vegas police have investigated in 2018.
Man shot multiple times
Las Vegas police are investigating after a man was shot multiple times early Friday morning. The shooting was called in about 3:20 a.m. at the Harbor Island Apartments, 370 E. Harmon Ave., near Koval Lane. The man was hospitalized and is expected to survive, but police are still searching for the shooter.
Former Military Police Corps Officer Celebrates 100th Birthday
Summerlin resident Gene Stephens, who served as a military policeman in WWII and escorted then-Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and President Roosevelt during the war, turned 100 on July 13, 2018. He credits his longevity to living a normal life, exercising regularly and eating three square meals a day. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Motorcyclist suffers serious injuries
A motorcycle rider was seriously injured Tuesday night after a crash on Charleston Boulevard. The crash was reported just before 10 p.m. near Durango Drive, according to Las Vegas police. The motorcyclist was hospitalized with unknown injuries but is expected to survive. Las Vegas police are investigating the cause of the accident.
CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara Has Lunch With Students
New Clark County School District superintendent Jesus Jara continued his listening tour by having lunch with students at Red Rock Elementary School as part of the district's summer lunch program. In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, children under the age of 18 can find a free lunch at 104 different locations across the valley through the summer months. Jara highlighted the free program and the importance of eating healthy during his visit. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Timeline Leading Up to Scott Dozier's Execution
Scott Dozier is set to be executed by lethal injection the night of July 11 at Ely State Prison. Dozier was convicted of the April 2002 killing of 22-year-old Jeremiah Miller and was given the death penalty in Oct. 2007. In 2016 Dozier asked in a letter to District Judge Jennifer Togliatti requesting that he “be put to death.” A three-drug cocktail of midazolam, a sedative; the painkiller fentanyl; and cisatracurium, a paralytic, is expected to end his life. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New Program Helps Mothers Battling Addiction
Jennifer Stanert has battled drug addiction on and off for the last 21 years. It caused her to lose custody of one of her children, Alec, after she gave birth while high. A new program at Dignity Health St. Rose Dominican Hospitals aims to connect mothers like Stanert with community resources and provide case management services while still pregnant to get connected to lactation and parenting classes, group peer support and education on neonatal abstinence syndrome. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Felon caught with guns in Mandalay Bay room 3 years before Las Vegas shooting
A felon was caught with guns in a Mandalay Bay hotel room three years before the October 1st mass shooting. Six weapons were found inside Kye Aaron Dunbar’s 24th floor room in November 2014. Four were semi-automatic. One was a scoped rifle pointing toward the Strip, according to court documents. Dunbar was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison for unlawful possession. The case just came to light in a lawsuit accusing Mandalay Bay of negligence in connection with the Oct. 1st shooting.
Illegal fireworks in the Las Vegas area garner complaints
Clark County received nearly 25,000 complaints over the Independence Day holiday on a new illegal fireworks site. Reports from the site led to at least 10 illegal fireworks busts across the valley overnight. As of Thursday morning, the county is still compiling the total number of citations issued.
House fire displaces 2 people
Two people were displaced after a house fire early Thursday morning. The fire, at 963 Temple Drive in east Las Vegas, was reported just after midnight, according to a battalion chief from the Clark County Fire Department. Crews from the North Las Vegas and Las Vegas fire departments also were called in to help. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
"Red White and Boom" July 4 Fireworks at the Stratosphere
Full video of the Fourth of July "Red White and Boom" fireworks show at the Stratosphere as seen from the 8th floor Elation Pool. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
July 4th fireworks at the Eureka Casino Resort in Mesquite
July 4th fireworks at the Eureka Casino Resort in Mesquite. (7-04-18) (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Crowds Enjoy Fireworks at the Stratosphere
Revelers enjoyed watching fireworks displays from the Stratosphere's 8th floor Elation pool on July 4. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pedestrian killed in Henderson
A pedestrian trying to cross St. Rose Parkway at Bermuda was hit by a vehicle on Tuesday night and later died. The crash was reported around 11:30 p.m. Las Vegas police responded initially, but handed over the investigation to Henderson police once it was determined the accident happened in their jurisdiction. Las Vegas police did respond to a report of a pedestrian being hit by a vehicle on the Strip. The person, who was hit by a BMW near Fashion Show mall, suffered serious but not life-threatening injuries.
USPS owes $3.5 million for using Vegas Statue of Liberty on stamp
The United States Postal Service has been ordered to pay $3.5 million to a sculptor after using the Las Vegas replica of the Statue of Liberty in a stamp. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
What to expect at Station Casinos' Fourth of July celebration
Station Casinos' is hosting its annual 4th of July celebration with Fireworks by Grucci. Fireworks scheduled to go off on Wednesday, July 4 around 9 p.m. at Green Valley Ranch Resort, Red Rock Resort, Fiesta Rancho and Texas Station. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Officer Brent Horlacher shoots at Jessie Murillo
Las Vegas police video of an officer-involved shooting on June 29, 2018. Officer Brent Horlacher, 28, fired a single shot at suspect Jessie Murillo. Murillo was not injured. The radio audio is of the officer who fired the gun and the body camera video is from a different officer. Radio audio excerpts are added to the video and are not the precise times the audio was spoken.
Family remembers deceased mother
Family members of Adriann Gallegos remember her. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Camp Broadway teaches kids how to sing and dance
The Smith Center's seventh annual Camp Broadway musical theater program gives 150 kids ages 6-17 an opportunity to learn musical theater skills from industry professionals over a five-day period. Marcus Villagran/ Las Vegas Review-Journal @brokejournalist
Restoring classic Corvettes to perfection
Members of the National Corvette Restorers Society Convention talk about what it takes to earn the NCRS Top Flight Award for a restored Corvette at South Point in Las Vegas on Tuesday July 17, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Watch Ruthless! at Las Vegas Little Theatre
The musical Ruthless! will be playing at Las Vegas Little Theatre from July 13-29. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Cadaver art and sword swallowing at The Dark Arts Market
Curator Erin Emrie talks about her inspiration for The Dark Arts Market at Cornish Pasty Co. in Las Vegas Tuesday, July 10, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
'NO H8' Campaign comes to Las Vegas
Hundreds of locals participate in the NO H8 campaign founded by Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley as a response to Proposition 8, a California ban on same-sex marriage. The campaign has since evolved to represent equal treatment for all. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
What to expect at Station Casinos' Fourth of July celebration
Station Casinos' is hosting its annual 4th of July celebration with Fireworks by Grucci. Fireworks scheduled to go off on Wednesday, July 4 around 9 p.m. at Green Valley Ranch Resort, Red Rock Resort, Fiesta Rancho and Texas Station. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Star Wars and Golden Knights mashup at downtown art shop
Star Wars and Vegas Golden Knights fans attend the Boba Fett Golden Knight Paint Class at The Bubblegum Gallery in Las Vegas, Friday, June 29, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Tourists and locals enjoy Independence Day fireworks at Caesars Palace
Hundreds of tourists and locals gaze at the Independence Day fireworks show at Caesars Palace on Saturday, June 30, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Clark County recount votes in commission’s District E primary
Clark County staff begin the recount requested by candidate Marco Hernandez in the democratic primary for the County Commission's District E seat on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Long-running local hip hop producer wants Vegas rappers to shine
Las Vegas Hip Hop producer and co-owner of Digital Insight Recording Studios Tiger Stylz reflects on 30 years of music production in the city. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
"Pawn Stars" fans visit Richard Harrison's memorial at Gold & Silver Pawn
"Pawn Stars" fans from around the world visit the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas following the passing of Richard "Old Man" Harrison on Monday, June 25, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Construction for new 51s ballpark underway
New home of the Las Vegas 51s is planned to be finished by March 2019 in Summerlin according to team president Don Logan. (Marcus Villagran/Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Underground home was built as Cold War-era hideaway
The underground house at 3970 Spencer Street is one of the valley’s most unusual homes built 26 feet underground in 1978 by Girard “Jerry” B. Henderson, who, planned to survive the end of the world there.
Lip Smacking Foodie Tours takes you where the locals go
Donald Contursi talks about Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, which offers walking tours of restaurants on and off Las Vegas Boulevard with food samples and tidbits of history about the places they visit.
News Headlines
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like