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 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.
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.
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.