Washington, DC C In what would be a precedent-setting placement of an active military facility in a national park, the National Park Service (NPS) has given the U.S. Air Force permission to start preparations for constructing radar facilities in Death Valley National Park, according to materials obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
With tacit approval of both the outgoing and incoming Death Valley National Park superintendents, the Air Force has begun an environmental assessment (EA) to build a radar facility in Saline Valley, north of Saline Marsh, and a repeater station on Galena Peak in the Nelson Range. The Air Force wants these radar facilities to improve the safety of low altitude jet training and mid-air aircraft refueling in the area.
"Hosting military facilities is a major departure from the mission and philosophy of the National Park Service," stated former NPS manager and PEER Board member Frank Buono. "The Park Service has historically resisted conversion of park lands to military uses even during World War II, what on earth would cause it to casually accept defense installations during peacetime?"
The legal authority for issuing a right-of-way, lease or special use permit for radar stations in Death Valley is uncertain at best. By law the National Park Service is charged with conserving, among other things, the scenery of the parks and providing for the use and enjoyment of that scenery in such a manner as to leave it "unimpaired". It seems unquestionable that the placement of a permanent radar facility would constitute an impairment of thepark's scenic resources.
"For those who know the Saline Valley, it is a special place: awesome scenery in the day and vast dark skies at night," Buono added.
PEER is also questioning how the environmental review will be conducted. Even though it is the project proponent, the Air Force has appointed itself a lead agency for preparation of the EA. Project proponents are often responsible for preparing EAs under the supervision of the deciding Federal agency. But it is highly unusual for the project proponent to be the lead (or co-lead) agency on deciding the outcome of its own proposal.
"This approach stands the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on its head -- NEPA is not a process to justify decisions already made but to ensure that decisions are arrived at thoughtfully and with due consideration of reasonable alternatives," Buono concluded.