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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Warning system now an unwanted relic

Associated Press

CHRISTMAS VALLEY, Ore. – After nearly 15 years, the Pentagon has decided a $300 million radar tower system built during the Cold War has no military value and plans to let it go back to the sagebrush and jackrabbits of Christmas Valley.

The Over-the-Horizon Backscatter radar system, built to track Soviet bombers over the Pacific Ocean, went online just as the Cold War ended. The government never used it.

“We expect to continue dismantling it and for the Air Force to leave the property,” said Steve Hinds, the radar program’s director.

But demolition of the abandoned site could take years. There are 216 metal towers ranging from 35 to 165 feet high, set in three long rows with a steel-framed warehouse at the end of each row.

When first built, the radar system brought some notoriety to the valley, home to a few hundred retirees, farmers and others who like a quiet way of life in the town named for the small lake at its center.

Residents paid little attention to the place after the initial construction jobs dried up, said Ava Parker, whose husband worked at the site briefly as a security guard in the early 1990s.

“Nothing exciting ever happened out there,” Parker said.

And now that it’s going, the sentiment hasn’t changed much.

“That’s just government,” said Jim Bullard, getting a few nods of agreement from the midmorning crowd at the Trail Restaurant and Lounge.

The radar system, along with its receiver in Tulelake, Calif., and an Idaho operations center, was the West Coast counterpart of an identical system in Maine that kept watch over the Atlantic Ocean. Construction began in 1987, and the array went online in 1990 with the completion of a 115,000-volt power line.

Training for about a dozen Air Force technicians began in 1991, but the Soviet Union crumbled that same year. Suddenly, the United States had no bombers to worry about.

The Air Force tried to find other uses for the radar, but none worked, including an idea to stop drug smugglers. The system was designed to track large formations of bombers, not single aircraft.

The Air Force had earlier plans to dismantle the site but tried to find a new role for it after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Nothing seemed to fit, though, so the government decided to scrap it, Hinds said.

The system was built on land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, so the Air Force is negotiating with the BLM to determine whether the whole site must be returned to sagebrush or whether some structures, including the towers, can stay.

Deconstruction could be costly, Hinds said. Some of the concrete slabs under the towers are 25 feet deep. “What if we need to take this back to pristine?” he asked.

At the time of construction, the site was considered the largest military project in Oregon’s history. Critics, including U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., questioned investing in technology many considered outdated.

DeFazio called it “yet another high-tech, wasteful Pentagon boondoggle.”

“It’s a waste of money, and it’s a shame the taxpayers are on the hook for it,” he said.

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