Rural Nevada town clings to targeted Army depot

By Martin Griffith: The Associated Press

HAWTHORNE, Nev. — For more than 50 years, this struggling desert town that proudly calls itself “America’s Patriotic Home” has held what’s billed as the nation’s biggest Armed Forces Day parade.

Some 3,500 people turned out earlier this month for the celebration, complete with water fights, a watermelon eating contest, dunk tanks and horseshoe pitching.

But the pride masked fears: The Pentagon wants to close the nearby Army Ammunition Depot, which accounts for nearly half of all jobs in the remote Nevada town of 3,800, about 130 miles south of Reno.

“This base is the heart and soul of town. It’s going to kill the town if they do away with it,” home-maintenance business owner Larry Grant, 43, said as tanks, torpedoes, rockets and missiles paraded past.

“It would basically turn this place into a ghost town,” said Operation Desert Storm veteran John Stroud, 47.

To the surprise of residents and Nevada’s congressional delegation, the depot was included this month on the Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure list, commonly known as BRAC. A nine-member commission can change the list before it is submitted to the White House and Congress this fall.

Many residents attending the Armed Forces Day festivities sported T-shirts reading “No BRAC — No Ghost Town — NO WAY!!”

“If you don’t have people living here, there’s no one to buy,” said Dean Shellenbarger, 40, a supermarket clerk. “Sooner or later you just have a huge hole in the ground.”

“I wonder if we’ll even have a school left,” said sixth-grade teacher Christy Grant, 41.

Although it sits on sagebrush-covered desert more than 200 miles from the ocean, the 147,230-acre depot opened as a Naval Undersea facility for submarine munitions in 1930. It features more than 2,400 bunkers that hold bombs, mortar shells and other munitions, and has shipped explosives for conflicts from World War II to the war in Iraq.

Today, Hawthorne seems frozen in its heyday era of World War II, a pit stop town of motels, gas stations and fast-food places framed by miles of bunkers. Travelers passing through on U.S. Highway 95, which doubles as the town’s main drag, are greeted by a huge American flag flying from a 150-foot pole.

But the Pentagon says moving the depot’s storage and recycling functions to the Tooele Army Depot in Utah would cut duplication and save money.

Supporters of the Hawthorne depot say the BRAC recommendation grossly underestimates the facility’s economic impact on the town and neglects cleanup costs that would total more than $400 million. They also say it fails to take into account the facility’s superior ability to store and ship ammunition, and to decontaminate and recycle military explosives for use by the mining and construction industries.

“All we want is a fair shake and the true numbers presented,” Stroud said.