May 6, 2006

From vacant to Vegas-area airport

Profound solitude pierced by the roar of jetliners will signal a dramatic change

Andrew Silva, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Looking north from Nipton Road in the Mojave National Preserve, the expansive, dusty valley below is dotted only by a new power plant along with the two western-themed casinos that greet tourists, truckers and gamblers as they cross north into Nevada.

In the distance, traffic glides along Interstate 15, bisecting the tan landscape as motorists head to Las Vegas or head back to Southern California.

That part of the vast harsh desert separating the megalopolis of greater Los Angeles from the glitzy neon-splashed mecca of Vegas is slated to change dramatically in the next decade.

Instead of the gentle rustle of wind, broken now and then by the lonely horn of a freight train or the distant staccato growl of a tractor-trailer's Jake brake, the profound solitude will be pierced by the roar of jetliners taking off from a huge new airport just north of Primm, Nev., sometimes called Stateline.

"We live in this highly urbanized society, and it's hard to get away from it," said James Woolsey, chief of interpretation for the Mojave National Preserve. "It's deafening, it's so quiet."

Although the Mojave National Preserve was created as a national-park unit in 1994, it remains unknown, even though more than 14 million vehicles per year pass by it on I-15 and another 4.7 million on Interstate 40.

But more and more visitors have been discovering the remote 1.6 million-acre preserve, especially with the recent opening of the restored Kelso Depot in the middle of the park, but it still draws only about half a million people per year.

"We're not like Yosemite where we can feed people pizza and stack 70,000 people in the valley," said Larry Whalon, chief of resources management for the preserve.

The proposed Ivanpah Valley airport will sit on Roach Dry Lake between Primm and Jean, Nev., north of the more pleasingly named Ivanpah dry lake bed, which is mostly on the California side and stretches between Primm and the foothills of the New York Mountains to the south.

The airport could be open by 2017.

Park officials and Clark County, Nev., planners are working together to minimize the effect of the airport on the preserve, but there's no way to completely isolate the impacts, especially noise and light.

A three- or four-year environmental review is scheduled to get under way in the next month or so with scoping meetings to get public input on what issues should be covered in a document that is expected to cost $15 million.

Las Vegas' explosive growth, both in population and tourists, has made the new airport a necessity.

Traffic at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas jumped 22 percent in two years, from nearly 36.3 million passengers in 2003 to 44.3 million last year, making it the fifth busiest in the country.

That means McCarran International is only a few years away from hitting its capacity of 53 million passengers per year.

And along with the new billion-dollar casinos, Las Vegas' vigorous growth has become part of its legend.

"There are a million people who weren't here when I moved here," said Dennis Mewshaw,, assistant director of aviation at McCarran International, which is owned by Clark County.

Indeed, Clark County had 741,459 residents in 1990, and last year, its population had leapt to 1.71 million.

Locals are fond of saying, with an incongruous mix of pride and dread, that 5,000 people per month move into the Las Vegas Valley. Actually, do the arithmetic and it's closer to 5,500, making Las Vegas the poster child for suburban sprawl.

Tract homes and shopping centers are spreading across the Southern Nevada desert faster than dice across a craps table.

All those new houses and businesses have squeezed in around McCarran International, making it impossible for the airport to expand.

With 30,000 new hotel rooms in the pipeline, the traffic at McCarran International will go up by another 10 million passengers.

A third terminal is under construction, and other improvements are planned, but that's about all the current facility can do, unless it were to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy up land around the airport, land already occupied by countless residents and businesses.

Roughly a decade ago, the search was launched for some place to put a second airport.

"It's a busy operation because our job is to bring people to the entertainment industry," Mewshaw said. "We have an obligation not to allow a lack of capacity impede economic growth."

A quick spin around the compass shows why officials settled on the Ivanpah Valley.

To the west are mountains, to the northwest is the Nevada Test Site, where hundreds of nuclear bombs were set off. To the northeast is the restricted air space of Nellis Air Force Base, where fighter pilots hone their skills in realistic mock battles, and to the east are Lake Mead and the finicky folks of "clean and green" Boulder City, Nev., who wouldn't tolerate an airport.

That left Ivanpah to the south.

It will be the first major U.S. airport since Denver International was completed a little more than a decade ago.

On the plus side, there's good infrastructure already there, including fiber optic lines, a natural-gas pipeline, a power plant, and even a jet-fuel pipeline.

The one thing missing is easy access to water, which will have to be imported.

And there are environmental concerns and serious engineering challenges.

That it's a dry lake bed is a hint that storm water will be a problem.

Three hundred square miles drain into the valley.

"If we had a 100-year storm on two days in a row, the lake would be covered in 2 to 3 feet of water," Mewshaw said.

Engineers will have to figure out what to do with all that water.

The two planned runways will have to be elevated, and that's going to require a lot of rock and soil.

And the often bumper-to-bumper I-15 will not be the route for travelers from the airport to Las Vegas.

Officials plan a separate dedicated road parallel to I-15 to carry the estimated 20 million passengers the 25 miles to the city.

"There'll be times it'll be quicker to fly to Ivanpah and get a car or bus to The Strip than it will be to go to McCarran," Mewshaw said.

Southern Californians would most likely continue to fly into McCarran. Ivanpah would be the destination for travelers from other parts of the country as well as from other countries.

There is a rail line right there, but trains to the city are not part of the plan. That's despite the nearly two-decade-old fantasy officials have had about a high-speed Maglev train running between Anaheim and Las Vegas, or at least from Primm to The Strip.

For lovers of the desert, though, it's the noise and lights that remain the biggest worry.

Flight paths will be laid out to keep planes from flying right over the preserve.

Microphones have been placed throughout the park as researchers measure the existing levels of sound.

Preserve Superintendent Dennis Schramm said he's seen noise models that are disturbing.

"Even though they can't fly over the preserve, Clark Mountain will still have a fair amount of impact," he said. "Once they turn to the east and point their engines back toward the valley, it's pretty loud."

The New York Mountains immediately to the west could act like the bowl of an amphitheater, said Whalon, the preserve's resources manager.

A healthy population of desert bighorn sheep on Clark Mountain, north of I-15 and part of the preserve, move down to the east, toward Ivanpah, for lambing in the spring.

That population had been in decline before a surprising rebound in a survey last fall, said John Wehausen, a researcher who studies bighorn sheep.

Bighorn tend to adapt well to human activity, he said, and he guessed the airport might not have a big effect on the sheep unless jets were flying right over the mountain.

A significant population of threatened desert tortoises thrives on the northwest side of the freeway, but the lake beds themselves on the other side are not great habitat for the slow-moving reptiles.

Light is another concern.

Some research has also been done to measure the effect on the night sky.

"Las Vegas and Primm are already impacting our northern skies," Schramm said. "You're losing stars on the low part of the horizon."

It's possible an airport and surrounding development could blot out the brilliant stars and that most rare experience: seeing the Milky Way, which is invisible to urban dwellers.

"It's a pretty unique experience to see how dark it is, and all the stars," Schramm said.

Those are all issues that will be analyzed in the environmental-impact statement, expected to be finished around 2010.

And if the analysis reveals any insurmountable problems, it's possible the project won't go forward. Clark County officials already expect a lawsuit by environmentalists once the document is adopted.
"I have strong feelings against the airport," said Elden Hughes of the Sierra Club's California-Nevada desert committee. "Ivanpah airport will impact the Mojave National Preserve terribly."

In 2000, federal legislation authorized Clark County to buy the nearly 6,000 acres of land from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for $20.4 million.

If the airport isn't built, the money will be returned.

Much of that money is earmarked to buy private land remaining inside the Mojave National Preserve.

Schramm said there are thousands of parcels in the preserve still in private hands.

San Bernardino County officials worry about the loss of tax revenue when private lands go into federal ownership. And they have other concerns about a huge airport just over the county line in Nevada.

Nevada and San Bernardino County officials met in February to discuss some of the issues raised by the proposed airport.

Bill Postmus, chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, who represents the sprawling 18,000-square-mile-desert 1st District, worries that payments by the federal government for lost property-tax revenue don't come close to making up the loss.

Another issue was how to coordinate emergency response. I-15 through the desert is often the scene of grisly car accidents.

Officials and environmentalists also worry about development that might follow the planned airport.

Whalon, of the preserve, said Clark County officials have been open and cooperative as they try to work through the issues to protect the area.

But if the airport is built, that patch of desert will be changed forever.

"Out here you can see for 20 miles," Whalon said. "People get pretty picky about what's pristine."