Locals work to tame the Air Force

  • AMAZING GRACE: Grace Potorti watchdogs the military

    Stanley Yung photo

RENO, Nev. - Grace Potorti lives 10 minutes away from the neon lights and slot machines of this "Biggest Little City in the World." Hers seems an unremarkable home - magnets adorn the refrigerator, two teenage children drift in and out.

But from this base, the 40-something Potorti takes on the Pentagon - for the past 15 years with a group called Citizen Alert and since 1993, with the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability.

She's a watchdog who keeps close tabs on the Department of Defense and its public-lands empire of 25 million acres (HCN, 4/13/98: Military wants to grow its Western empire). It was the military's irresponsibility toward its neighbors, she says, that turned her into a "professional troublemaker."

She remembers how the Navy destroyed Dixie Valley, Nev., in the mid-'80s, to expand training out of Fallon Naval Air Station. The Navy bought out residents of the ranching community, then burned most buildings to the ground.

Potorti also recalls how the Air Force seized an 89,000-acre swath of southern Nevada from the Bureau of Land Management. The land overlooked Area 51, a top-secret testing zone. The Air Force sent soldiers to occupy the area without consulting the public or the BLM, she says (HCN, 3/4/85).

Military arrogance didn't end with the Cold War, she adds. In 1993, Potorti discovered that the Air Force had been practice-bombing parts of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.

Her garage holds the evidence of such abuses: Dozens of cardboard boxes stacked four or five high contain years' worth of environmental impact statements, newspaper clippings and documents that made the long trip from the Pentagon to the Potorti garage, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. But somewhat to her surprise, she says, one branch of the military has begun to mend its ways.

The Air Force listens up

Potorti says many good changes are under way at Nellis Air Force Base in southern Nevada. Nellis is the largest military-training complex in the Western Hemisphere, stretching across 3.1 million tightly secured acres of high desert punctuated by a succession of mountain ranges and the eastern end of the Mojave Desert.

The Air Force considers the range "one of a kind ... absolutely essential to air combat readiness," where networks of electronic warfare installations and bombing targets replicate battlefield scenarios better than anywhere else in the country.

Despite a half-century of bombing, 97 percent of the range remains in relatively pristine ecological condition, according to Nellis biologist Eric Watkins. The exclusion of public access and development, Watkins says, has protected biological and cultural resources as if they were in a national park - providing a haven for bighorn sheep, rest areas for migratory birds commuting to the south, and some surprisingly well-preserved Native American sacred sites.

Potorti agrees that safety and buffer zones at Nellis have incidentally saved a huge chunk of southern Nevada. But what's really surprised her is how the Air Force has engaged the public.

In what became known as the Keystone Dialogue (the meetings were facilitated by staffers from Colorado's Keystone Center, a public-policy think tank), the Air Force invited a broad range of participants to talk about Nellis in 1997. Potentates from the Pentagon and colonels from the base rubbed shoulders with representatives of federal land management agencies, the state of Nevada, environmentalists, Native Americans and military watchdog organizations, including Potorti's Rural Alliance.

The meetings spanned a year. Facilitators focused the 70 participants on collaborating to provide recommendations for the Air Force's natural and cultural resources management plan. Keystone published a 76-page final document this past summer, suggesting that the Air Force increase and formalize tribal and general public participation on range management matters. It also offered more specific prescriptions for maintaining roadless areas and managing habitat for species like the bighorn sheep and the desert tortoise.

Col. Mike Fukey, Nellis' environmental point man, describes the dialogue as "something where the Air Force had remarkable foresight."

But the Air Force was pushed toward change in the early '90s, when commanders began to butt heads with the Endangered Species Act. The red-cockaded woodpecker threatened training at several bases in the East and the Sonoran pronghorn antelope almost forced the grounding of F-16s at the Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona.

"For the first time," says Doug Ripley, the Air Force's natural resources manager, "the military was faced with the potential loss of readiness training ... because of conservation issues."

Ripley, a retired lieutenant colonel and former professor, calls these run-ins with the act "a real eye-opener" for the Department of Defense, a warning that environmental laws had to be taken seriously. So when President Clinton issued an executive order directing all federal agencies to adopt ecosystem management, the Pentagon embraced this stewardship philosophy. Ripley says the Air Force started looking beyond its boundaries to increase cooperation with other land-management agencies.

Late last year, for example, the Air Force said it would allow the state of Nevada, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Energy, and the BLM to help monitor environmental conditions on Nellis Air Force Base.

Nellis isn't the only air base that's felt this cultural shift, he says. At Arizona's Goldwater Range, an executive committee representing the major landholders in the region - the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Arizona, and the Papago Nation - convenes regularly to address environmental issues.

Dave Rubenson, an analyst with RAND, the public policy think-tank, says what's driving these changes is more than just law and executive orders. With the end of the Cold War, the military is no longer the spoiled child of American society, he says, able to justify its wants with reminders of national security. He cites the Tailhook scandal to show how the Department of Defense is being forced "to share the values of the rest of society." In the West, Rubenson sees other demographic changes, such as development pressure, the emergence of more user groups, heightened environmental sensitivity, and Native American activism, all driving the military to confront the reality that "its actions affect outside constituents."

Potorti's perspective

Potorti thinks it's too early to celebrate. The groundbreaking initiatives at Nellis and Goldwater are taking place as the two ranges face congressional review to stay in Air Force hands. Both are federal lands withdrawn from the public domain for military training. The environmental impact statement for Nellis' renewal, to be approved by Congress in 2001, suggests an "indefinite withdrawal," breaking from the tradition of 15-year leases.

If the Air Force gets the indefinite lease on Nellis, Potorti worries that it's going to be back to the "bad old days." There are some "guys with their hearts in the right place," she says, but times change and personalities move on. She wants Nellis renewed for only another 15 years.

Potorti is also fighting for permanent bodies like the Keystone Dialogue, along with a reasonable budget for range stewardship and public involvement, written into the renewal legislation. "Money talks and B.S. walks," she says.

A final vignette

The Navy recently announced that it had dropped plans to seek 10,000 more square miles of airspace for Fallon Naval Air Station, an hour's drive from Reno. Fallon is a subject close to Potorti's heart. She stepped into her career path 15 years ago after sonic-booming jets training out of the base buzzed her.

"I'm going to throw a party," she said, shortly after hearing the news. "We've been fighting this thing for 10 years. Taking on the Pentagon for a living isn't the easiest career in the world. When you win, you've got to celebrate."

Bob Fulkerson, now the head of Nevada's Progressive Leadership Alliance, was a colleague at Citizen Alert back in the day. When asked about Potorti, he talks about her sense of humor and endless energy. But he dwells on how she "did it on her own with nothing more than a high school education. This shows the importance of passion."

Potorti is crossing her fingers that the New Air Force for the New West is here to stay. If things start to backslide, though, she promises, "when I'm 80, I'm gonna be at hearings with a cane saying, "You guys: I never forget."

Stanley Yung, from British Columbia, is a former HCN intern.

You can contact ...

* Grace Potorti at 702/677-7001;

* U.S. Air Force Public Affairs Officer Gerda Parr, 703/614-1325 or www.af.mil.

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