Book Review: Overlook

Chapter 6, Federaland, America’s Internal Fringe, concludes this compendium of our country’s job lot of odd areas with one which, although it is the largest, is largely unknown.

The Great Basin

The region called The Great Basin is a distinct zone within the United States covering much of the states of Nevada and Utah and portions of California, Oregon, and Idaho. Because its network of watersheds has no outlet to the ocean, rainfall evaporates before the water rises to a level that would allow it to spill over into the watersheds that do flow to the ocean. Consequently, the region is a huge desiccated hothouse.

The Great basin is also the largest territory outside Alaska that belongs to the federal government. It was placed under the control of the Bureau of Land Management because no claims were filed for the land during the years between the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 and its repeal in 1976.

Congress directed the BLM to manage the land in ways that would best meet the needs of the American people. It seems appropriate that this unwanted land has been dedicated to serving the national needs that the American people don’t want in their back yard; namely, those involving national defense and heavy industry.

This chapter covers eight military sites, seven sites devoted to the manufacture, storage, maintenance, and disposal of munitions, and five nuclear and hazardous materials sites.  For obvious reasons the public is prohibited from experiencing these sites firsthand.

Of the eight military sites that introduce the Great Basin, the Nellis Range, north of Los Vegas, deserves first place for its size and breadth of mission.

An explosion over the Nellis Range

This forty-seven hundred square miles of land in southern Nevada is the Air Force’s largest and busiest bombing and training range. Fighter pilots train in twelve thousand square miles of “special use” air space. Fixed and mobile threat simulators, fake enemy airfields, industrial facilities, radar stations, and telemetry facilities support the war games. Tanks and aircraft are turned into targets for live bombing practice, and parts of the range are wired for electronic warfare training. There are large complexes devoted to testing aircraft and weapons systems as well as sites used as bases for unmanned aerial vehicles. Needless to say, access to the site is restricted.

A different kind of war-games training is carried out at Fort Irwin northeast of Barstow, California. This is a major Army training range where the infantry lives and trains for long-term desert warfare with full-scale simulated battles. The home force acts as the enemy against visiting infantry from other bases around the country.

Sign on the road connecting Fort Irwin to the highway

Although much of the Great Basin’s desolate landscape has been devoted to the perfection of warfare in active ways, it is also a storage place and a graveyard for obsolete munitions and for disposing of unstable ones.

One of the territory’s seven sites related to munitions is the Hawthorne Ammunition Depot in Western Nevada. In addition to the 2,427 munitions storage igloos on its 147,000-acre site, the Western Area Demilitarization facility has several multi-building complexes that process and recycle outdated munitions and manage the disposal of bombs.

The Dugway Proving Ground at the southern end of The Great Salt Lake Desert contains eight hundred thousand secure acres of Utah desert where several hundred military and industrial complexes are used primarily by the Army and Air Force for smoke and obfuscatory experimentation, chemical and biological weapons training, detonation and dispersal training, and other weapons and projectile experimentation.

Not all of the weapons tested and stored in the Great Basin are  “conventional.” Concentrated around the nation’s primary nuclear proving ground in southern Nevada is the country’s largest amount of radioactive land.

When the Limited Test Band Treaty went into effect in 1963, nuclear weapons testing under water, in the air, or in outer space was prohibited, making underground testing the remaining option. As a result the 860,000-acre Nevada Test Site was created to be owned and operated by the Department of Energy. At least 921 nuclear charges have been detonated beneath its surface, and numerous other destructive operations including small-scale nuclear tests still take place underground at other parts of the site. There is even a Big Explosive Experimental Facility, known as BEEF.

8 Responses

  1. Barbara Seaton says:

    You help keep me wide-eyed.

  2. J. Ware says:

    I read with great interest your book review of Overlook. The American Landscape or rather how we as Americans have chosen to deal with it has always fascinated me. This is a little off topic, but as a civil engineer I am always amazed at the audacity that we have to make such grand interventions on the land – civil indeed. I know civil or civil works came about as contrasted to a war or defense engineer, but in our modern age our intentions and their impacts need to be constantly questioned and fully understood.

  3. Thank you for mentioning the Museum of Jurassic Technology! I was tempted to write about it, because it is next door to the CLUI in Culver City. But it has a different agenda and merits a post of its own.

    Those who don’t know about this unique public institution, may go to the Wikipedia website for a detailed history and look at other websites to read the visitors’ reviews.


  4. Thank you for mentioning the Museum of Jurassic Technology! I was tempted to write about it, because it is next door to the CLUI in Culver City. But it has a different agenda and merits a post of its own. If you want to learn more about this unique public institution, Go to its website and read the visitors’ reviews.


  5. L. Ogden says:

    Fascinating! Did you consider mentioning another “treasure trove of the little known”, CLUI’s neighbor in Los Angeles (Culver City), the Museum of Jurassic Technology?

  6. My thanks to Dan Gregory and Jay Claiborne for comments that extend the scope of my review by directing attention to other writers who have looked at our land with discerning eyes and written books worth re-reading.


  7. Great review that I almost wish I hadn’t read because I now want the book and the monk’s shelf says, so now who has to go. Don’t worry Jackson, Banham, McPhee, Pollen, Papa Lynch, you juar may have a new friend. This review made me pull a lesser known work on that shelf called Topophilia by Yi-Fu Tuan which I continue to re-read for the insights she provides on the interaction between the physical world, culture and biology. Overlook seems to illustrate what Yi-Fu Tuan explains so clearly.
    Once again, Sally, you have gotten me into trouble. I want it.

  8. Wow, Sally — this is the greatest eye-opener of a review and I can’t wait to get the book! The Overlook project brings to mind the interpretive landscape writings of J. B. Jackson, Reyner Banham, and John McPhee. Fascinating to learn about the design esthetic of “show caves”; “drowned towns”; and “sit sim villages” developed for training exercises. I love the sign that says “Absolutely Nothing Next 22 Miles”. There is everything in this subject. Bravo!

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