WASHINGTON -- An Air Force official admitted to a House panel Monday that orders closing public access to Groom Mountain in Nevada - overlooking a top secret military testing area -- are illegal.
The Air Force wants authority to control an 89,300-mile chunk of a federally owned desert mountain range rising above Area 51. The highly secret spot next to the Nevada Test Site is used to test advanced technologies to be used in the Stealth Bomber and President Reagan's 'Star Wars' defense system.
The Air Force official's admission came at a hearing of a House Interior subcommittee considering a bill to withdraw the land from public use, put it under Air Force control and renew previous withdrawal from public access of 2.9 million acres that comprise the Nellis Air Force Range.
However the Air Force, without legal authority, already has closed the Groom Mountain Range, posting guards to deny public access to its water, mining and hunting.
Wildlife, including mule deer, antelope, desert Bighorn sheep and mountain lions, roam the area.
During questioning by Rep. John Seiberling, D-Ohio, chairman of the House Interior public lands committee, John Rittenhouse, assistant to the Air Force's deputy installation secretary, said orders to close the area came from either the Air Force secretary, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger or Reagan.
Asked by Seiberling about the legal authority to close the area, Rittenhouse hedged, saying he couldn't 'go further' except in a closed briefing.
'Why a closed briefing? I just want to know your legal authority,' Seiberling said. 'Shades of Watergate!'
Rittenhouse huddled briefly with an Air Force lawyer, then told Seiberling he had misunderstood the question.
'We had no legal authority, but we asserted the right to request people that they not enter,' Rittenhouse said.
'If you have no legal authority, you have no right,' Seiberling said.
Rittenhouse said security needs in the area are 'paramount,' and acknowledged the Soviets could use a satellite to spy on Area 51, which is so secret it doesn't appear on unclassified maps.
Rittenhouse said the Air Force will pay the Pat Sheahan family fair market value for the land being taken. The Sheahans have owned and mined Groom Mine, located on the land, since the 1890s and have legal rights to 22 mostly patented mining claims, Rep. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.
Reid, Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, R-Nev., and Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan testified in favor of the bill, but only if Nevada residents are fully compensated.
Bryan said the Air Force 'attempted to hoodwink the Congress' and state of Nevada by adding the 89,300-acre withdrawal to a routine request without publicreview. The move was discovered accidentally.