RENO, Nev. — The remote desert ranch that for decades provided a scenic backdrop for flights by some of the world’s most daring aviators is under new ownership.

The Flying M Ranch, located northwest of Hawthorne, sold earlier this summer to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for $19.4 million, reported the Reno Gazette-Journal (http://on.rgj.com/2c4YpDu).

The deal is part of an effort to direct more water to the Walker River so it can flow into the beleaguered Walker Lake near Hawthorne as part of an environmental recovery project.

“The acquisition of Flying M is an incredibly significant accomplishment for the Walker Basin Restoration Program and for the overall conservation values in the Walker Basin,” said David Yardas, director of water investments for the foundation.

It covers 7,139 acres of land, surface water rights sufficient to produce nearly 28 cubic feet of flow per second in the Walker River and primary rights to 160 acre-feet of groundwater as well as thousands of acre-feet of storage rights. An acre-foot is enough water to supply a typical home for a year.

“We now have thousands and thousands of acres of water that is going to wind up going in that lake,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., of the Flying M and previous purchases. “We are going to save Walker Lake.”

Reid was instrumental in establishing the Walker Basin Restoration Program.

The idea behind the program is to acquire enough property and water rights to restore Walker Lake to the condition it was in around the year 2000 when it supported fish species such as Lahontan cutthroat trout and Tui chub and an annual stopover by migrating loons.

Low flows have shrunk the lake and contributed to higher levels of saline and other dissolved solids, reducing water quality.

“It didn’t come cheap,” Reid said of the ongoing efforts. “It has been a lot of money, well more than 100-million of your taxpayer dollars.”

In addition to the land and water rights, the Flying M deal includes a life-lease provision that will allow former owner Barron Hilton, 88, to remain on the property.

The Flying M is the biggest purchase so far for the foundation’s Walker Basin Restoration Program. Since 2010 the foundation has purchased 15,719 acres with enough surface water rights to account for flows of about 98 cubic feet per second. Although it’s unclear how much of the water will flow to the lake. The amount is still being determined in a federal court water rights case. The case addresses how much of the water should be allowed to move through the Walker River system and into the lake.

“The Flying M property includes significant areas of the East Walker River, which provides a great opportunity to protect and enhance a healthy riparian corridor while also protecting a significant amount of water for the health of the Walker River and Walker Lake,” Yardas said.

Including the Flying M, the group has spent more than $100 million in the region.

The acquisition program gets funding through the Desert Terminal Lakes Program, which is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation receives funds from the bureau through grant agreements and administers the Walker Basin program for the bureau and the Department of the Interior.

The ranch, sometimes referred to as the Hilton Ranch after former owner Barron Hilton, was the point of departure for the final flight of aviator Steve Fossett on September 3, 2007.

Fossett, flying in a single-engine, two-seat Super Decathlon aircraft, disappeared, prompting a massive search and rescue effort.

Parts of the aircraft and bone fragments were found in October 2008, near Mammoth Lakes, California.

The Flying M was also the site of two-week “soaring camps” for winners of the Barron Hilton Cup, a glider competition that ran from 1980 through 2009 and included some of the world’s best glider pilots.

Hilton is the son of Hilton Hotels founder Conrad Hilton. The younger Hilton founded the San Diego Chargers professional football team and was known as an aviation fanatic.

The ranch is between the Wassuk Range and the Sweetwater Mountains, west of Hawthorne, south of Yerington and northeast of Bridgeport, California.

Prior to Hilton’s purchase in the mid-1960s it was owned by Stanfield Murphy of San Francisco, according to an article in Airport Journals.

Since Hilton purchased it and turned it into an aviators’ playground, the guest list has included astronaut Alan Shepherd, former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, actor Cliff Robertson and performer John Denver.

The ranch is fenced off to outsiders and is likely to remain that way as long as Hilton’s life lease is in effect.

Foundation officials wouldn’t provide a point of contact for a Hilton representative. Numbers associated with the Barron Hilton Cup were disconnected and a spokesperson with the Conrad Hilton Foundation said he couldn’t contact Barron Hilton.

The reclusive nature of the ranch operation isn’t new. As far back as 2007, when Fossett went missing, and before, locals reported little interaction between the ranch and neighboring communities.

“Let’s just say that unless you’re rich and famous, nobody even thinks of going to that place,” area resident Roberto Estrella told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. “It’s in the middle of nowhere for a reason.”


Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com