HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Changes have been made to the proposal to expand the Utah Test and Training Range, and a draft of the bill is almost ready for Congressional review.
J.P. Freire, spokesman for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the senator’s proposal to expand the UTTR by about 700,000 acres in rural Box Elder, Tooele and Juab counties is in its final stages and will soon be introduced before the House and Senate.
The expansion involves eight swaths of land that sit immediately outside the current range boundary. If Hatch’s bill passes, the land — which is currently owned by the state or the Bureau of Land Management — would ultimately be acquired by the Air Force and the Department of Defense.
Hatch said the expansion is critical to future F-35 operations at Hill Air Force Base because it would provide buffer zones that are necessary for full testing of the Lightning II, the F-22 Raptor, long-range strike bombers and other hypersonic weapons.
Hill is the Air Force’s maintenance depot for both the F-35 and the F-22. In September, the base became home to the Air Force’s first operational F-35 unit. Hill’s 388th and 419th Fighter Wings will eventually share 72 of the jets, flying regular training missions at the UTTR.
“One of the crucial measures (in bringing the F-35 to Hill) was ensuring that the (UTTR) has the necessary capabilities to test the F-35’s advanced, long-range weapons,” Hatch said in a statement. “Without Hill and an expanding UTTR, the Air Force would be forced to ferry the F-35 to Australia for testing and training, which would be costly and inefficient.”
Freire likened the range expansion to a driving range at a golf course.
“If the driving range is only 100 yards long, you won’t be able to practice with your driver,” he said. “(The UTTR) needs to be expanded to make room for full testing of the F-35.”
According to a fact sheet from Hill, the UTTR currently contains the largest space of contiguous “special use airspace” in the United States. As it sits today, the 12,574-square-nautical-mile range includes 6,010 square feet of restricted airspace and 6,564 square miles of Military Operating Area land.
After a series of public meetings on the expansion over the last 18 months, Friere said, the bill has been modified to protect traditional uses of Utah’s West Desert after the expansion.
While public access to expansion areas would remain open, the Air Force would be allowed to temporarily close roads and other areas for security. Friere said new language in the bill would put a three-hour time cap on any Air Force closures. Other changes to the bill stipulate that current land grazing rights for nearby ranchers and farmers will remain intact.
Hatch said any Payment in Lieu of Tax money that counties could lose as a result of forfeiting of BLM land would be offset with equal-value land exchanges. Lost School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration land would be consolidated into larger parcels and given back to the counties.