Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015 | 2 a.m.
A Henderson family has until 3 p.m. today to accept the Air Force’s $5.2 million offer to buy roughly 400 acres encircled by the Nevada Test and Training Range, which includes Area 51. If the family declines, which they have said they will, the Air Force would likely force a sale, seizing the pocket of private land that has been in the family since 1889 and awkwardly sits amid 2.9 million acres of restricted federal land.
If the Air Force invokes eminent domain, it would be allowed to take the property owned by the Sheahan family, in exchange for an amount of money to be determined in court.
Since the 1940s, the property has been slowly surrounded by federal land, making visits onerous and mining all but impossible. The Air Force has offered to buy the land twice since 2014. But the Sheahans have refused, holding out for a higher price.
The Air Force argues leaving the land in private hands will disrupt missions and pose security risks. “The Air Force has found that civilian presence within the confines of the (Nevada Test and Training Range) has led to more mission cancellations, resulting in an increasing impact on national security-related test and training activities,” said Staff Sgt. Darlene M. Seltmann, a spokeswoman for Nellis Air Force Base.
But the family disagrees.
“Why now?” asked Joe Sheahan, a co-owner, adding that “to the fullest extent that we are able to, we are going to fight them.”
The Groom Mine, as the property is known, has a long history.
The Sheahan family acquired the rights to the Groom property in 1889, with two mining patents that dated back further to the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. The area was fairly quiet until the United States military came in during the Second World War.
That would eventually become the Nuclear Testing Site, the boundary of which was about 15 miles from the Groom Mine. In 1951 came the first atomic tests. Until 1954, some members of the family continued to live and work at the mine, which yielded lead, silver and copper. But with nuclear testing — and the allegations that the government bombed a mill used to process ore — the relationship turned sour.
Eventually, the 400 acres of private property and now defunct mining operations was surrounded by top-secret land, including Area 51, which the property overlooks.
The Air Force has historically attempted to maintain an amicable relationship with the family. “We don’t want to go in and tell them to get the hell out — we’re the big guys and you’re the little guys and we’re going to kick sand in your face,” Col. Charles Meyer, of the Air Force’s Nevada Operations Office in Las Vegas, told the Sacramento Bee in 1987.
But today, increased demand for the Nevada Test and Training Range has put the parties on a collision course. “In this case, the Air Force has exhausted all reasonable options to reach a settlement with the landowners,” Col. Thomas Dempsey, Commander, Nevada Test and Training Range Wing, said in a statement last month.
The family says it feels it was brought to the negotiating table on false pretenses, not aware that the Air Force had received congressional approval to condemn the land. The family has in the past estimated that the entire property, including 21 mineral claims, is worth at least $10 million. The military rejects that claim. In April 2014, the Air Force offered to purchase the land for $2.4 million or its appraisal value.
The Sheahans also worry a settlement will force them to sign an inadvertent disclosure agreement that would prevent discussion of visits to Groom Mine.
In recent weeks, the family has requested elected officials intervene on their behalf. “If our politicians can’t step in, then they are doing something wrong,” Sheahan said. Neither Rep. Cresent Hardy, who represents the congressional district that includes the land, nor Sen. Harry Reid or Sen. Dean Heller responded to requests for comment.
Even if the land is seized, the family plans to seek what it believes is a fair price.
“The federal government has every right and obligation to protect the secrets of this country against our enemies,” Sheahan said. “But on the flip side of that, they have every (obligation) to protect the rights of all American citizens.”