November 4, 2006

Ivanpah Valley project causing concerns


A proposal to build a Southern Nevada airport that could handle as many as 35 million passengers a year could be facing delays before it even gets off the ground.

The National Parks Conservation Association, an environmental group dedicated to protecting national parks, wants to extend a Monday deadline for public comments on the proposed Ivanpah Valley airport another 45 days to give people in California a chance to weigh in on the project.

Environmentalists and operators of the Mojave National Preserve fear noise, light and pollution from a major airport near Primm would threaten the sanctity of the 1.6 million acre preserve.

"Natural quiet is a delicate and important feature," said Dick Hingson of Flagstaff, Ariz., who has researched the impact of aircraft noise on national parks for the Sierra Club. "People go out there ... to get away from airports, traffic noise, interruptions."

But there's pressure to get the new airport built fast. McCarran International Airport, already the fifth-busiest in the nation, serving more than 44 million passengers annually, could be at capacity of 53 million by 2011.

Officials in Clark County, which operates McCarran and supports the Ivanpah Valley site, say the soonest a new airport could be built is 2017.

Even without delays, the visitor-dependent Las Vegas economy could face six years with a discrepancy between the amount of new hotel rooms it could add and the number of people who could be shuttled in to fill the beds.

"At that point, we have to be very, very creative about how we are going to get people in here," said Chris Jones, spokesman for McCarran. "If we want to continue to bring people in to fill the resorts, there has to be a new airport."

The federal government seems inclined to stay the course and deny the conservationists' request for a deadline extension.

"We are going to elect to keep the comment period closed on Nov. 6. That was the close of the comment period, and we are sticking to that at this time," said Andy Richards, manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's San Francisco district office.

Officials will use the comments in part to determine what issues to study when they draft an environmental impact statement. The goal is to have a draft environmental impact statement by January 2009, Richards said.

"If we would like to stay with January of 2009, we must remain on schedule," he said, adding there will be more opportunities for public comment.

"This is just the start," he said.

Richards defended the process and said there was no need to hold public forums, called scoping sessions, outside Nevada.

"The project is in Nevada. It was our feeling we well publicized it among the California agencies of concern," he said.

During a series of scoping meetings in October in Las Vegas and Jean just 10 people spoke out on the proposal.

Their concerns centered on whether the airport would disrupt off-road vehicle recreation in the Ivanpah Valley, possible impacts on the desert tortoise and worries about the region's water supply.

The highest number of concerns came from the off-road riders who hold races in the open desert area.

The distribution list for information on the scoping process included more than 100 agencies, American Indian tribal governments and elected officials at all levels of government, including federal agencies and some Indian tribes in California.

No local governments or elected officials from California were on the list.

Also, no scoping meetings were held in California, even though aircraft from the airport would fly over both states.

"The fact that a scoping meeting was not scheduled in California suggests that (consultants coordinating the process) have avoided developing awareness of this project in Southern California, even though portions of the desert region may be significantly affected by it," wrote Ron Sundergill, director of the Pacific region of the National Parks Conservation Association in an Oct. 31 letter to the FAA and the Bureau of Land Management.

Sundergill cited several Mojave ranches and the town of Nipton, Calif., as well as remote desert roads as examples of places that could be affected by the proposed airport.

Linda Slater, a ranger at the Mojave National Preserve, said aircraft could disrupt the serenity of the preserve. Serenity is a major draw for park visitors, she said.

"They would be banking right along the boundary of the park," Slater said. "It would really change the experience for some of the people camping in that corner of the park."