A bombshell exploded a few weeks ago in the midst of tangled negotiations over the fate of the 2.7 million-acre Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range in the Sonoran Desert of southwestern Arizona.

Mohawk Dunes,
Goldwater Bombing Range.

The Air Force accidentally dropped a 500-pound bomb April 30 on a part of the range that the Air Force is proposing to turn over to the Bureau of Land Management, said Col. David L. White of the Air Force. The BLM wants to include the land in a national conservation area that would be open to hikers, hunters, off-road vehicle users, and other recreationists.

“It was a mistake,” said White. “It shouldn’t have happened. But when the land is so close and so adjacent to High Explosive Hill, those things can happen.”

The bomb was ejected from an A-10 attack aircraft and landed in the desert about a quarter of a mile from the intersection of the two main dirt roads in Area A, a 90,000-acre tract that Air Force biologists say contains the densest stand of saguaro cacti in the state. Area A is about four miles from High Explosive Hill, which is frequently bombed in military training exercises.

“The earth at the point of impact is gray powder,” said an Air Force biologist who visited the site.

The errant bomb raises questions about the Department of Defense’s proposal to turn over this section of the range to the BLM (see “Home, home on the bombing range”). The proposal is part of complicated horse-trading now underway to reauthorize the “withdrawal” of federal land in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Alaska for military use. While the Department of Defense controls about 27 million acres of land in the U.S., a portion of that is actually managed by other federal agencies and “withdrawn” periodically for military use.

The Pentagon must by law conduct an environmental review every 15 years of the land it is withdrawing. Among the law’s unintended consequences are agonizing turf wars among federal agencies, senators, conservationists, off-road vehicle users, hunters, and other constituencies. The deadline for the next withdrawal is 2001. But Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), who is making a big push for military preparedness in the wake of Kosovo, wants a resolution this year, and with the stepped-up time frame, general hysteria appears to be reigning.

The military’s plans have been controversial in Nevada, where it is seeking to expand its right to conduct training on a wildlife refuge, and New Mexico, where the land in question contains a wilderness study area and a trophy pronghorn antelope herd. But Arizona, arguably, is where the issue is most contentious, provoking conflict not only between the military and environmentalists but between local military officials and Pentagon political brass.

Desert Rats Scurry to Gather Support

The wild card in the mix is a recently launched campaign for a Sonoran Desert National Park and Preserve that would encompass the entire Goldwater range, including the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge within the range’s borders and the 330,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument adjacent to the range. Under this scheme, some portions of the area would become a national park and other portions would be made into a national preserve, where military activities could continue. The National Park Service would manage natural resources and tourism on all of the land. The proposal is supported by an impressive roster of Southwestern desert rats, authors, and politicians, including former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and authors Charles Bowden and Ann Zwinger.

A-10 in action.

Supporters of the park and preserve fear that dividing up control of the range, as the Air Force wants to do, would not only fragment management in the short term, but make the task of getting a park designated even more complicated. Dean Bibles, a former Arizona director of the BLM, has taken the bold step of opposing his former agency’s bid to take over Area A in the Goldwater range and instead is supporting the park proposal.

“The Bureau of Land Management has never had the wherewithal, the staff, or the budget to do the kind of natural resource management Area A requires,” said Bibles. “You have fragmented management now and the Pentagon plan would fragment management even more. Sonoran pronghorn [an endangered species on the Goldwater range] don’t know where the boundaries are and the desert bighorn sheep are the same way. We need a single agency as the manager on the ground.”

The recent explosion in Area A has also raised the question of the BLM’s ability to effectively monitor and guarantee the safety of visitors to the Goldwater range. There is now only one BLM ranger assigned to the entire range. Air Force officials say that a committee made up of high-ranking local officials from all of the agencies that operate in the Goldwater is working on keeping better track of the permit process for visitors. But it’s still generally acknowledged that hundreds, if not thousands, of campers and off-road vehicle users sneak onto the range every year.

Arizona conservationists are also concerned about other aspects of the Pentagon proposal. One is a bid to transfer the range’s western half to the Marine Corps, which longtime local activist Bill Broyles says has no track record of managing natural resources.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect is a Pentagon bid for indefinite withdrawal of the Goldwater range for military use, which could exempt decision-making on the range from the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental review and citizen participation. The Pentagon has already been accused of making a mockery of the NEPA process by cutting backroom deals with the Department of Interior over control of range land before a public-comment period ended. And the DOD proposal flies in the face of the majority of public comments, which favored having a single agency manage the range.

However, sources in Washington, D.C., say the final package from the administration on the issue, due out July 1, is unlikely to endorse indefinite withdrawal, and will probably recommend a 25-year time frame instead.

Not Your Father’s BLM

The larger context for this controversy is the pressure for increased recreation and natural resource protection throughout the western U.S. as the population grows. In the face of this pervasive change, federal agencies are struggling to redefine themselves — whether they want to or not.

For instance, the Air Force is reluctant to get into the land management business, but it is required by law to protect natural resources. And the Pentagon often has an easier time getting funding to hire biologists and archeologists than the traditional federal land management agencies.

The BLM is also under pressure to reinvent itself as a more recreation-oriented agency, but it is having difficulty getting away from its reputation as the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining.”

According to a BLM spokesperson, no mining or grazing would be permitted in the agency’s proposed national conservation area, which would include Area A as well as three BLM wilderness areas. In addition, off-road vehicles would be more strictly regulated than they are now.

BLM officials confirmed, however, that a management plan has yet to be written. In addition, there is no budget to manage the proposed national conservation area. “But if we get approval, we will be in a much better position to obtain funding,” said an agency official.

Some national environmental groups, such as the Wilderness Society, are leaning toward endorsing
the BLM proposal. But other environmentalists remain dubious.

Bill Snape of the Washington, D.C.-based group Defenders of Wildlife wonders why the Department of the Interior, which houses both the BLM and the National Park Service, has not been more proactive in developing a plan for the area. “The larger question is, ‘Where is the Department of Interior?’” he says. “Do they care about the Sonoran pronghorn? Do they care about the Sonoran desert?

“If the Department of Interior actually had a vision for the land, it could do as good a job protecting it as the military. I don’t understand why no one has seen this as an opportunity, either for a park or an expanded refuge.”

At least one Interior official, who asked not to be named, said that the BLM has been struggling to get its proposal together in the face of a deadline imposed by New Mexico Sen. Jeffrey Bingaman (D) to meet McCain’s demand for quick action. But Interior has shown little interest in the park proposal being floated by Arizona conservationists.

Where’s the Fire?

The question is: What’s the rush? Why not give Interior a chance to look at the whole southern Sonoran desert in a comprehensive way? The Goldwater range is surrounded by more than 3 million acres of parks and biosphere reserves and the 2 million-acre Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation. Park proponents say this may be the last chance for big wilderness in Arizona’s rapidly suburbanizing Sonoran desert.

An aide to McCain said the senator is concerned about moving ahead on military readiness. Others say McCain is gearing up for a presidential run and wants to get the military withdrawals out of the way before election fever hits.

McCain has been sympathetic enough to park supporters to include in draft legislation the establishment of a two-year commission to study the proposal for a Sonoran Desert National Park and Preserve. But some government officials predict that the senator will be far more influenced by pressure from the military, which is adamantly opposed to park designation, than by pleas from hikers.

On the other hand, Washington, D.C., environmental lobbyists believe that McCain may try to prove that he’s presidential timber by showing voters he can think about issues that go beyond military might. McCain has long made political hay out of his friendship with the late Arizona Rep. Morris K. Udall (D), an environmental hero. In the 1960s, Udall came up with a proposal for a Sonoran Desert National Park similar to the one now being bandied about. McCain may want to leverage his association with Udall further by supporting some version of the current proposal.

But until the dust storm blows over, travelers near the Devil’s Highway — the historic dirt track that runs through the Goldwater range and into northern Sonora, Mexico — might be well-advised to practice their duck-and-cover technique.