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  • Commissioners are concerned about road closures in expanded Air Force testing range

By Myrna Trauntvein
Times-News Correspondent

There are some local concerns with some of the provisions of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress and signed into law in December 23, 2016.
With the passage of the act, the Air Force's biggest testing range located in the West Desert of Utah is about to get bigger.
Kevin Oliver, BLM's West Desert District Manager, and Col. Chris Gough, Commander of the Utah Test and Training Range, were on the agenda to talk to Juab County Commissioners on Tuesday.
However, Gough was unable to make the meeting. Oliver offered to get the Colonel on a conference call but commissioners said they would be content if Oliver would relay their remarks to Gough.
Oliver presented commissioners with the 15-page copies of the Act prior to the discussion.
"The BLM and the Air Force are teaming up to visit commissioners of the affected counties," said Oliver. "My main reason for attending your meeting is to get the name of a person you would like to sit on the community advisory board."
Rick Carlton, commission chairman, said that Byron Woodland, commissioner, should take that seat.
"I have an Air Force background, and I have a keen interest in the area out there," said Woodland.
He had some input on the roads that were part of the original Senate bill but were dropped before the bill was passed.
"We also had some residents participate," said Carlton.
Woodland said that he had some concerns about closure of the Weiss Highway, a paved road that extends west from Nephi to the Nevada border, providing access to ranchers who are scattered through western Juab County.
The road has existed for decades, at one time leading to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and has long been used by miners, law enforcement officers and outdoor recreators.
He was also concerned about closures of the Pony Express Road.
"The closures are supposed to not take longer than 30 minutes," said Carlton. "However, there have been several closures in the past (to allow testing of weapons of war) that have lasted several hours."
That could present a hardship to the people who lived in the West Desert and relied on those roads.
"Page 4 of the act talks about road closures," said Oliver. "I don't know what your previous [questions] were. However, in no case shall they be longer than six hours."
Once, the county road crew was working on a road in the West Desert, said Lynn Ingram, county road superintendent, and they were told that the road would be closed for 30 minutes.
The crew decided they would take a lunch break and would then be back to work. However, that was not the case because the road remained closed for more than two hours.
If there were an emergency, what would happen? asked Carlton.
"I would like to think that they would put human life above testing," he said.
Oliver said that emergency vehicles were excluded from the closures.
"A temporary closure of a portion of the BLM land shall not affect the conduct of emergency response activities on the BLM land during temporary closure," Oliver read.
How long before a closure would there be notice given, asked Woodland.
On page 5, said Oliver, it states that residents should have at least 30 days notice of a road closure, in case of a closure from March 1 to May 31 there will be a 60 day notice and, in some cases, there will be a 90 day notice.
Clinton Painter, commissioner, said that he understood that the advisory committee were just to give recommendations but had no authority to make changes but only to suggest change.
"I have sensed a sincere desire, on the part of the Air Force, to have a good relationship with the counties," said Oliver.
The $618.7 billion bill includes a piece of legislation put forward by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that will enhance the Utah Test and Training Range by more than 625,000 acres.
The expansion includes eight pieces of land situated immediately outside the installation's current boundary in rural Juab, Box Elder and Tooele counties.
The acquired areas are planned to work as buffer zones to guard against encroachment from communities through natural expansion and allow the Department of Defense to better test the F-22 Raptor, which receives all of its maintenance at Hill Air Force Base, and the F-35 Lightning, which is scheduled to begin operation at Hill in September.
The expansion would also allow for better testing for weapons systems like long-range strike bombers, and other hypersonic weapons, expansion proponents say.
The UTTR is the largest block of overland contiguous special use airspace within the continental U.S. Located in northwestern Utah and eastern Nevada, approximately 100 miles west of the base, the range is a Department of Defense Major Range and Test Facility and provides space for operational test and evaluation of weapons that require a large safety footprint.
The UTTR is used in a training capacity for air-to-air-combat, air-to-ground inert and live practice bombing and gunnery training by Defense Department aircrews. It's the United States' only location capable of supporting overland testing of cruise missiles.
The Air Force expansion would total about 700,000 acres that sit just outside the current range boundary.
Public access to the proposed buffer areas would remain intact, including for uses like hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities, said Oliver.
The land is currently owned by the state of Utah or the Bureau of Land Management, but the Air Force and the Department of Defense will be given authority to use the land to create "buffer zones" for range activities.
Public access to all eight expansion areas will remain open, but the Air Force will be allowed to close roads and other areas temporarily for security purposes.
"Those closures will be limited to three hours and can't occur more than 10 times a year or on weekends or state and federal holidays, according to the bill," said Oliver. "The total cumulative hours of temporary closures authorized under this section with respect to BLM land shall not exceed 100 hours annually."
The legislation also requires that current land grazing rights for nearby ranchers and farmers remain intact.