Just beyond the morning shadows of the Wasatch Mountains, tiny Delta, Utah, sits on the fringes of the western Utah desert, a four-block downtown stretch -- no stoplights.

Except when a coal train rumbles through or when hay trucks downshift from highway speed, Delta is quiet. Things change slowly. The 2,100 Delta residents , mostly farmers and merchants, like it that way. A few leave, but most return.

Until recently, the mayor of Delta earned a token salary of $30 a month. There weren't many problems at city hall, which shares quarters with the city library. The mayor's job consumed about an hour each day.

Today, between repairing county school buses and managing his own small farm, Delta Mayor Leland J. Roper is grappling with an issue that could very easily transform every aspect of life in Delta -- the construction of an MX missile complex in the nearby desert.

In the thick of discussions that involve national security, spending eight hours each day in meetings with all sorts of government agencies and private organizations, blue-jeaned Mayor Roper today earns $650 a month. Even that, he says, is slight compensation for the miseries generated by the MX. But he is determined to do the job.

"I know things are going to change," he says, relaxing in Top's City Cafe next to the city offices, "but I am going to do my best to keep Delta orderly. If we're not careful, this could just smother us."

Around the small towns in the valleys of western Utah and eastern Nevada, the question is being posed again and again: What will the MX, one of the largest government projects ever proposed, do to their way of life?

Some businessmen see the obvious advantages of manifold increases in population. Environmentalists sound the alarm for the fragile desert -- pointing out that the Pony Express trail is still visible and that heavy machinery would leave equally permanent scars. Ranchers and miners are fearful of losing their land. And public officials are skittish about the troubles in handling an estimated 100,000 people who would move in to build and operate the giant system.

Utah Gov. Scott Matheson says succinctly: "There is an ominous, almost unreal dimension to the MX, in part due to its magnitude and in part due to its purpose. The impact of this colossal project will not be confined to those counties where actual construction takes place, but will reverberate throughout the state, and indeed, throughout the Rocky Mountain region."

The MX is on a scale like nothing before it -- the concrete required could build two Hoover Dams. Initial cost estimates are $33 billion, but others now say $50 billion, perhaps more.

The MX system has been described as a mammoth version of the old "shell game, " with nuclear missiles instead of peas. The idea is to prevent the Soviet Union from knowing the exact location of intercontinental nuclear missiles aimed at targets in the USSR. The result, in effect: mobile missiles, traveling between concealed silos.

Some 47 desert valleys would be affected. Below the desert floor, the Air Force would build 200 oval loops, each 10 to 15 miles long and 4 to 6 miles wide. These are known euphemistically as "race tracks."

Ringed around each loop would be 23 missile shelters. A giant truck, known as a transporter-erector-launcher, would carry an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) randomly between the shelters. Soviet spy satellites would be unable to determine when the trucks were actually moving missiles between shelters or simply pretending to so so.

To "neutralize" the silos in one loop, according to this shell game, the Soviets would need to drop a bomb on each silo. With 200 loops, the Soviets would need 4,600 perfectly targeted bombs before it could assume the MX system was destroyed. The Air Force calls that an "adverse exchange ratio" of weapons.

But as the Air Force moves ahead -- it is in the process of completing its third environmental impact statement and deciding what direction to take for the fourth and final statement -- controversy over the project is just beginning to boil.

Opposition to the MX is still being organized, but the project's scale and involvement with nuclear weapons likely means that major legal battles and demonstrations will be mounted before a shovelful of desert is overturned. With the Air Force seeking "initial operating capability" by 1986, and with work on the voluminous environmental impact statements already pressing that timetable, the certainty that the MX will be built is questionable.

Given the "Soviet threat posture," says Dave McPhee, the environmental project officer for the Ballistics Missile Office at Norton Air Force Base in California, "our schedules are pretty tight."

But President Carter and sources at the Pentagon, according to Utah and Nevada officials, are repeatedly saying that there is less and less indication that the MX might be abandoned. Indeed, the effort to build it may be stepped up.

"Every signal we get from the Air Force is that 'this is a good system, we are going to build it, and we are going to make it work,'" says Kenneth Olsen, the staff director for the Utah MX coordination office.

Governor Matheson now is working to reach a decision by the end of April on what posture the state government will take on the MX. "I feel we're being boxed in so fast that we don't have any other choice," he told the Monitor.

The governor and others are particularly concerned that the Air Force appears to be giving only a brief look at other sites and other means of deploying the missiles, even though the National Environmental Policy Act requires thorough consideration of alternative locations. Strong hints continue to fly that court action will be pursued should the Air Force proceed with the Utah-Nevada location without giving other possibilities equal scrutiny.

The list of concerns about the impact of the MX is lengthy, from major worries over access to water supplies, to communities troubled by the prospect of losing their small town social fabric.

In the southwest Utah town of Cedar City, which the Air Force is considering to accommodate a main support base, anxiety over the project is being weighed against a strong tendency toward patriotism and to do what Congress, the Pentagon, and the President believe is necessary for the country. Cedar City's citizens, some 13,000 in number, are primarily members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints (Mormons), like much of Utah. Their tendency to support a strong national defense is being challenged by their equally strong interest in a solid family life and upright communities in which to live. They don't view large military installations or crews of temporary construction workers as good ingredients in that lifestyle.

"I live here for the quality of life," says Dixie Leavitt, the owner of the Leavitt Insurance Group and a former state senator from Cedar City. "I have a deep concern for the country and for our ability to defend ourselves. I don't hold myself out as a military expert -- I would trust the military establishment to determine the best needs. But we need evidence that these people should be coming in."

As a teacher in the early 1950s, Mr. Leavitt remembers huddling with schoolchildren outside his classroom while the government tested nuclear weapons in nearby Nevada. He and the children were told to face toward the east in case the detonation flattened their schoolhouse. He regrets being used as "guinea pigs" in that situation.

"If the MX were to fold up and go away," he says, "everyone here would breathe a sigh of relief."

One block from Dixie Leavitt's office, Cedar City Mayor Jack Sawyers sits in the office of the Cedar movie theater, which he owns, and laments at the scope of potential troubles facing his city. "The biggest problem," he says, "is understanding the problems we are going to have."

As mayor of an attractive city, already growing at almost 8 percent each year and barely meeting the needs of that new population, Mr. Sawyers worries about how Cedar City would manage such staggering overnight growth. He rattles off the list of hurdles: fire protection, police protection, adequate schools, sanitation, garbage collection, road construction, electric power, and water.

And then, he wonders, what would the influence of high wages for MX construction workers do to the local economy? How would the local economy look when the MX was complete? Would the government pay for the additional burden on the city? How long would the subsidy continue? And how well would the people of Cedar City react and interact with a brand new group of people around?

"Our crime rate is low, education is high, our family life is different than other places -- and we like it," says Mayor Sawyers. "I don't know anyone who can hardly wait until the MX comes."

Across the desert, in the western Nevada town of Ely, many local officials take a more resigned attitude.

"It looks like the thing is going to happen anyway, and we are going to be hit with the brunt of the construction right here," says Ely Chamber of Commerce manager Betty Whitehurst. But if Ely can lure a main support base to the area, she says, the boom-bust cycle can be avoided. Permanent residents for the support base would replace construction workers.

"Maybe it's a lemon," she says, "but maybe we can take advantage of it and squeeze out some lemonade."

A large copper pit near Ely was closed two years ago, setting the local economy back, and then the city lost its bid to accommodate a state medium-security prison last year. Many merchants are hungry for the MX.

"I'm personally for it," says Safeway store manager Susan Keough, who now competes with two other markets. "We all grope for all the business there is," she says. "Ely has needed something like this for a long, long time."

The only problem she sees "is accommodating all the people." She worries about whether her suppliers could keep her shelves well stocked. "We're going to have to stay on our toes."

Others in Nevada are staying on their toes for the opposite reason -- to check every Air Force fact and analysis of the potential impact.

At the Nevada MX Field Office, the counterpart of the Utah MX Coordination Office, funded in part by the US Department of Defense, planners have prepared a list of issues they want resolved in the environmental impact statement now being prepared.

The list includes discussion of alternative sites, how the system will be decommissioned, how land will be reclaimed, where raw materials will be found, what use of the raw materials will have on existing projects in the private sector, how land will be withdrawn from privately owned and state-owned land, how civilian access will be managed, how historical sites will be treated, and how water will be acquired. In a drought, current Nevada law states that the most recently appropriated water is the first to be dropped. That, clearly, would need changing.

"Many people think of the MX as a big abstraction, but as soon as they realize the enormity of it and what is involved the tremendous problems become more apparent," says Jo An Garrett, a board member of "No MX," an umbrella group that is organizing the opposition. "It's difficult to understand how the Air Force can even think of putting this project together."

"No MX" includes the Sierra Club, the anti-nuclear Sagebrush Alliance, the By Southern Nevada Off Road Enthusiasts, and Citizen Alert, among many others. They claim that more than 80 percent of Nevadans are opposed to the MX and vow relentless attacks on the entire scheme.

"It's politically unwieldy, technically unsound, and environmentally disastrous," says Gregg McKenzie, another "No MX" board member.

Upon completion of the environmental impact statement being drafted by the Air Force, which involves site selection and land withdrawal, the statement will be submitted to the US Department of the Interior and the Office of Management and Budget for approval. By early 1981 the Air Force hopes to have the Interior Department apply to Congress to approve the withdrawal of other federal lands for the MX.

At that point, congressional debate could begin on the feasibility and practicality of the MX. Should little time be lost in debate, construction could begin as early as 1982.

As the Air Force proceeds with planning, however, local and state officials are making it abundantly clear that they want thorough answers to all their questions, including specific plans on how the Air Force intends to deal with each aspect of the impact on each city. Like other large technical projects, such as nuclear power plants, Air Force figures and conclusions are likely to be disputed regardless of what they propose. It will be an exhaustive match.

"We're not opposing this because we are nasty or unpatriotic. We're opposing it because it's idiotic and obsolete," says Susan B. Dutson, the publisher of the Millard County Chronicle in Delta, Utah. "Somebody found a road map and decided this is a good place to put the MX. They make their decisions back in Washington and don't have the vaguest idea of what sagebrush is. You have to be very careful with the desert.

"No, we don't have much going on here, but most people don't understand we like it that way. If we wanted the hustle and bustle we would move.Life is a little slower here," she adds, and "we enjoy more of it."

But that view is not unanimous.

"The thing that scares me is that the people who oppose the MX don't seem to realize that what gives them a chance to be free is the fact that we have a strong defense and that we haven't had a war at home since the Civil War," says Utah state Rep. S. Garth Jones of Cedar City.

Although not 100 percent pro-MX, he adds, "If they think other powers are going to twiddle their thumbs while we dwindle as a world power, they are crazy."

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