When Las Vegas built McCarran Airport 50 years ago, it was on the outskirts of the city, a healthy cab ride to downtown casinos.
Today, with McCarran ranking ninth in the nation in passenger traffic and hemmed in by, among other things, a pyramid, a castle and the New York skyline, officials want to build a secondary airport to accommodate the boom--and once again are looking to the boondocks.
The proposed airport site is closer to California than the Strip, and its critics say it will have a greater impact on the Mojave National Preserve than on the suburbs of Las Vegas.
The airport would be built about six miles from the California state line, on a dry lake bed between the casino-centric towns of Primm and Jean alongside Interstate 15. Officials say it would not open for at least 15 years.
On Tuesday, a U.S. Senate subcommittee will consider legislation to force the federal Bureau of Land Management to sell the land against its will, even before any environmental studies determine what impact an airport would have. The bill is sponsored by Nevada's two Democrat senators, Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, but is opposed by the Clinton administration.
A House subcommittee heard testimony last week on its version of the bill, but has not yet acted on it.
The Interior Department, on behalf of both the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, is fighting the proposal, along with various environmental organizations seeking to preserve the natural ambience of the Mojave National Preserve.
"I cannot believe they would consider something like this," said Mary Martin, the Barstow-based superintendent of the 1.5-million acre Mojave preserve, parts of which would be within 10 miles of the airport. "It's so important to have a place where you can go, to be by yourself, experience the quiet and solitude and get away from the noise and impacts of an urban environment. You can do that in the Mojave. You can be miles from anywhere and enjoy a very, very quiet environment."
That will dramatically change, Martin and others say, if passenger and cargo jets are landing near the state line, approaching the airport from over the California desert at an altitude of about 7,000 feet.
Those overflights "will definitely have an impact on the Mojave," Martin said.
Environmentalists agree with her anxiety.
"We worked for a decade to see the California Desert Protection Act enacted in 1994, and now the Mojave is being threatened by an airport," said Jay Watson, a western regional director in San Francisco for the Wilderness Society.
"Once the land is transferred, we can't help but think that the airport is taxiing toward approval, even before any environmental studies are done," he said.
The National Parks and Conservation Assn., a private advocacy group for public lands, shares the concern, said Helen Wagenvoord, a regional director in Oakland.
"This proposed legislation would virtually make the decision now" to allow an airport, she said.
Among a litany of concerns, she and others said, are how noise, lights and air pollution associated with the airport will affect the fragile desert, its plants and animals--including the endangered desert tortoise as well as bighorn sheep in the nearby Nevada mountains. Critics worry, too, that the airport will spawn further commercial and industrial development in the desert between Primm and Las Vegas, and that the airport will tap the scarce water supply beneath the Mojave to serve its own needs.
Clark County airport officials acknowledge the concerns, but say the prudent action is to acquire the land now and evaluate the environmental questions later.
Dennis Mewshaw, the Clark County planner assigned to the airport project, said the site is the most practical to serve Las Vegas.
To the east of Las Vegas is Lake Mead; to the west are the Spring Mountains and to the north, Nellis Air Force Base, with its bombing and gunnery ranges, and the Nevada Test Site, known for its nuclear bomb detonations.
Planners considered and discounted placing the airport near Pahrump because it is about 55 miles west of Las Vegas, accessible via a mountain pass, and near Mesquite, about 70 miles northeast of Las Vegas, although civic leaders in both communities sought the airport.
The preferred site, in the Ivanpah Valley, is about 35 miles south of Las Vegas, alongside railroad cargo tracks that may one day be used for a high-speed train between Las Vegas and the state line--and ultimately, Southern California.
The BLM wants to save the site for hikers, off-road-vehicle enthusiasts and desert recreation users.
The county has promised to pay "fair market value" for the 6,500 acres of land--at its meager value as desert property, not based on its commercial potential--and has budgeted $10 million to buy it.
"We want access to the land now, so we can put up a big yellow sign there that says, 'Coming soon near you, an airport,' " Mewshaw said.
If the county is allowed to buy the land, environmental studies will be conducted later by the Federal Aviation Administration to identify and mitigate airport impacts, he said.
Approval of the airport would then be needed only by the Clark County Board of Commissioners--which already is pushing for it--and the FAA.
The airport would probably be needed by the year 2015, Mewshaw said. Because its development is so distant, he said, it would be futile to try to assess specific environmental concerns now.
"We don't know what kind of aircraft will be flying 10 or 15 years from now, or the magnitude of demand on the airport," he said. "We are unable now to develop a defensible environmental impact statement."
The airport would have two runways--compared to McCarran International Airport's four--and would probably be earmarked for use by charter passenger flights, international carriers and air cargo, Mewshaw said. Even at full development, perhaps 40 years from now, the airport would be only half as busy as McCarran is today, he said. Scheduled domestic flights would still use McCarran, which handles about 30 million passengers annually and which now is operating at 60% capacity.
Some of the early critics' anxieties--such as concern about light pollution--are unfounded, Mewshaw said. Airport lighting aims downward, he said, and would pale when compared to the neon lights of the existing casinos along Interstate 15.
He said efforts would be made to avoid flying over the Mojave, at least at low altitudes.