Exploring public land issues with residents near Area 51, reporter Tom Warden travels near the secret U.S. Air Force base. Also, Congressman Jim Bilbray talks about the importance of keeping military secrets and balancing land use. This story aired in 1994 on KLAS TV, Las Vegas. Second of 2 parts.
There’s no question that the view from the top of Freedom Ridge is a straight shot into the heart of one of America’s most secret military bases. Whether you call it Groom Lake, Dreamland or Area 51, it was meant to stay out of public view.
Nevada Congressman Jim Bilbray is concerned, “I don’t think people should be climbing up there with telescopic lenses looking down on those facilities and taking pictures. They certainly will give aid and comfort to our enemies, whoever they may be throughout the world.”
A resident who didn’t want her name used has concerns about government secrets. “They do secret things at Nellis Air Force Base, too. But I know where it is. I can walk right up to the fence and I know what kind of money they spend.”
Despite the discord, almost everyone agrees on the basics. The military needs some secrecy to conduct weapons programs. But now that the Cold War is over, why does it need more? Also, people need access to public lands in a free and open society, and they want to know what’s going on with their tax dollars under all this secrecy. “They tend to use it as a cover for covering up their budget and spending money in unwise and, you know, fairly stupid ways,” said one of the local resident.
It’s tough to keep such a huge operation secret. Every weekday morning, a large number of Las Vegans park their cars at a secure terminal at McCarran International Airport. They board airliners with one red stripe and no markings. They fly off into the sky and fly home at quitting time. These planes ferry workers to and from the secret base.
But what are they working on? Aurora is one of the most talked-about projects. But is it real? It’s been written up in magazines and many claim it’s being developed at Groom Lake. Secretary of Defense William Perry defends the secrecy of the base, “I think there’s no more important test range to the United States Defense Department than the Nellis Range.”
In a House Armed Services Committee meeting, Nevada’s Jim Bilbray asked the Secretary of Defense about it point blank.
Jim Bilbray: “Could you make some comments on that, maybe for once and for all, let the press know that it (Aurora) does not exist, or does exist? Thank you.”
Mr. Bilbray. The United States government has never built such a plane. Is that categorical enough?William Perry, U.S. Secretary of Defense
But even if there is no Aurora, the base is still home to next generation stealth aircraft. That has aviation fans keyed up, and the military nervous, so much so it wants to grab the high ground at Freedom Ridge. All the Air Force says so far is that the move is necessary “for the safe and secure operation of the Nellis Range.”
Area 51 observer Glenn Campbell disagrees, “This isn’t the Nellis Range. This is outside the Nellis Range, and the public safety isn’t involved at all.”
But the real reason for this land request is to correct a mistake. A much larger and clearly illegal land grab in 1984 was later approved by Congress. It resulted in a straight line drawn on a map, probably by a Washington bureaucrat. That created an obvious vantage point just outside the boundary. “That area was supposed to be in the present boundaries of the Nellis Range, Bilbray said.
This story is all about boundaries, and not just the kind that this sign is about. It’s about military secrecy and where does military secrecy overstep the boundaries of a free and open society? The real question is where do we draw the line?
Curtis Tucker of the BLM was non-committal, “The possibility exists that it may not happen, you know, the possibility exists it may happen.”
The BLM says the Air Force application to grab this high ground will go through channels. That includes public input. Most local citizens, such as Joe and Pat Travis at the nearby A’Le’Inn, know right where they stand. “This land belongs to us,” said Pat.