Nonstop service to the Mojave Desert?

  A 6,500-acre swath of federally owned desert, 10 miles from California's Mojave National Preserve, could become the site of a new Las Vegas airport. But environmentalists and the National Park Service say airport overflights will ruin the preserve visitor's experience.

"One of the really special things about Mojave is the opportunity for solace and quiet," says Mary Martin, superintendent of the preserve.

Clark County officials chose the site, in part, because it is bordered by railroad cargo tracks on one side and Interstate 15 on the other. They say the airport will be used mostly by charter passenger planes and air cargo and won't be needed until 2012 at the earliest. But legislation requiring the BLM to sell the land to the county, introduced by Nevada's two Democratic senators, Henry Reid and Richard Bryan, and Republican Rep. Jim Gibbons of Nevada, has been approved by the House Resources Committee.

If the county gets the nod from Congress, critics worry the airport would become a done deal with little public input. "By that time, you're just dealing with the minor issues," says Martin.

Dennis Mewshaw, the Clark County planner charged with overseeing the project, admits there's been little opportunity for the public to respond so far, but says the airport is a long way from approval. The Federal Aviation Administration and the county, says Mewshaw, still need to conduct environmental studies and decide how to mitigate the overflights.

Says Mewshaw, "I don't think we should say at all that the public won't have a say."

* Tim Westby
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