September 25, 2006

Ivanpah's soil perfect for rare plant, but will it ground airport?

By Launce Rake
Las Vegas Sun

The Ivanpah Valley - shown on old maps as Roach Lake - is just a dusty patch of desert between Jean and Primm, 30 miles south of Las Vegas.

But Clark County has big plans for the dry lake bed. By 2018, the county Aviation Department, operators of McCarran International Airport, wants to have a fully functioning airport bringing cash-carrying passengers to the new Ivanpah facility.

The department has reason to hurry.

McCarran International Airport saw more than 44 million visitors arriving and departing last year, up almost 7 percent over 2004. At that rate, the existing airport could reach its planned capacity within just a couple of years.

Early next month, the Aviation Department, Federal Aviation Administration and Bureau of Land Management will hold a series of meetings to take public comment on environmental issues affecting the plans. Randy Walker, department director, said he doesn't see any show-stoppers on the environmental side - but he knows that identifying environmental issues and mitigating any impacts are critical to getting the new facility.

"Obviously, the formal environmental review process is a very key step in the whole process of trying to build an airport," Walker said.

Environmentalists for years have raised objections to the project. They say that it would lead to development sprawling miles away from the urban core, would be near habitat designated by Clark County for the threatened desert tortoise and could affect a rare desert plant.

Jane Feldman, an activist with the local arm of the Sierra Club, said the project could affect a type of plant called a penstemon, or beardtongue.

"There are many different varieties, but this is one that grows in lower elevations in very sandy, windblown soil," she said, the kind of soil that collects in some areas of the Ivanpah Valley. The penstemon variety "has a very limited range. It lives in the southern part of Clark County and a couple of other places, and nowhere else.

"If we interrupt the way that sand is deposited, we may lose the species."

Development also could impact the tortoise translocation center on the west side of Interstate 15, she said: "For us to put that airport there was extremely shortsighted."

But environmentalists know it will be a tough job fighting the federal and local officials lined up to support the Ivanpah airport. Feldman noted that federal legislation allowed Clark County to buy 5,800 acres in the Ivanpah Valley for the airport in 2004.

"The land has already been given to the airport, which means that any study of alternatives is really going to be perfunctory," she said.

Other critics have raised concerns about the flood-prone character of the dry lake bed that is the base of the planned airport. But a Las Vegas civil engineer said in an interview earlier this year that such issues are not unusual in the West.

"Airports are constructed on dry lakes all through the Southwest," said Julianne Miller, a UNLV engineer. "There are always environmental issues, but all these things can be engineered around."

Walker said that environmental objections are premature: "We're moving forward on the environmental processes. The goal is to successfully determine that there are no environmental impediments and to go ahead and built the airport ¦ That's what the environmental process is all about - to identify the environmental issues and identify any potential mitigation."

Walker said the county is in the second year of a five-year process to deal with environmental issues for the new airport.

While the continuing growth of McCarran's passenger load is a concern, Walker is not panicking.

"It depends on how fast the community grows, how many hotel rooms get built," he said. "If for some reason hotels don't get built, there won't be a problem."

Current projections are for 40,000 hotel rooms to come in the next six years, Walker said.

And if all are built, "then I believe we will not be able to meet the demand."

While waiting for the new airport to come, McCarran officials will try to squeeze in more passengers .

"You try to do whatever you can. You try to be creative," Walker said. "If the demand is strong enough, then maybe people start doing things that aren't common in the industry."

That could mean booking more flights on what are relatively slow days at McCarran: Tuesdays and Thursdays.

But Vegas-bound consumers might be the ones to pay the price, Walker said: "Whenever you have more demand than supply, prices go up."