HILL AIR FORCE BASE — It took an act of Congress, but the Air Force’s biggest testing range is about to get even bigger.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed into law the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. The massive, $618.7 billion bill includes a piece of legislation put forward by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that will expand 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 Box Elder, Tooele and Juab counties.
The land is owned by the state of Utah or the Bureau of Land Management but will be transferred to the Air Force and the Department of Defense.
Any Payment in Lieu of Tax money counties could lose as a result of forfeiting the BLM land will 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, according to information supplied by Hatch’s office.
“We will be working with the BLM and the Air Force to continue to represent Utah’s interest in the process going forward,” Hatch said in an email to the Standard-Examiner.
The land acquisition will create buffer areas around the range to protect it against encroachment. Hill Air Force Base spokesman Micah Garbarino said the expansion will allow the Air Force to safely test “next generation” weapons, like the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, the F-22 and long-range strike bombers.
Hill provides maintenance depot for both the F-35 and the F-22, and operates the Air Force’s first operational F-35 unit. Hill’s 388th and 419th fighter wings will eventually share 78 F-35s, and both wings conduct regular training missions at the UTTR.
Hatch said the expansion plan includes protections for traditional uses of the desert land.
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 federal holidays, according to the bill. The legislation also requires that current land grazing rights for nearby ranchers and farmers remain intact.
Located in northwestern Utah and eastern Nevada, the UTTR features the largest contiguous piece of “special use airspace” in the United States, according to a fact sheet from Hill. The facility has an annual operating budget of more than $30 million and has equipment and assets valued at about $1 billion.
The installation employs 11 active-duty military members, 93 civilians and 153 technical services personnel.