Nevadans bring desert refuge fight to Capitol Hill

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Bighorn sheep at a water "guzzler," photographed by a motion sensor camera. (USFWS photo).

WASHINGTON — A diverse coalition of Nevada environmentalists, veterans and tribal and state leaders stormed Capitol Hill offices last week to press lawmakers to block a U.S. Air Force plan to downsize a Nevada wildlife refuge.

The Air Force wants to expand its sprawling bombing and training range north of Las Vegas. The proposal — which must have congressional approval to go forward  — would give the military control of nearly 1 million acres of adjacent land at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. 

The military already has nearly 3 million acres in southern Nevada for testing and training.

“When is there going to be enough? If it is not there now, taking land from a refuge for the public is not going to help you,” Christy Smith, a former employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Nevada Current between meetings on Capitol Hill. “There is a point where we have to draw the line. I think that’s it.”

Smith, who worked for the FWS for 25 years and managed the desert refuge until she retired last December, joined ten other advocates to make the rounds on Capitol Hill this week. The group met with staff and lawmakers from more than 20 congressional offices, including the Nevada delegation.

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat and protection for the iconic bighorn sheep and other species. Smith said the proposal could disrupt dry lakes that form habitat for migratory birds and disturb the wide-ranging habitat for the sheep, desert tortoise and mountain lion.

“It is also a very spiritual place. I call it ‘the big empty,’ and it is wonderful,” said Smith. “The wildlife refuge has been able to keep it pristine and intact, but my concern is that with the new proposal, that is going to be destroyed.”

The spiritual ties to the place are especially true for the Moapa Band of Paiutes, whose homeland once stretched across the area. The refuge includes mountains and worship spaces that are sacred to the tribe.

“Our traditions and our culture have been taken away enough as it is,” said Greg Anderson, the former chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes. 

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is the largest wildlife refuge outside Alaska, with 1.6 million acres that stretch from the Mojave to the Great Basin Desert. It encompasses six major mountain ranges.

The Nevada Legislature passed resolutions in both chambers this year to oppose the expansion. State Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) came to Washington to ask Congress to support them.

“As Nevadans, it is more important to us to protect the wildlife refuge space than to allow military encroachment for the marginal benefits they would gain by increasing the already humongous test and training range,”  Scheible said.

Congress will have to weigh in on the issue before the current land agreement with the Air Force expires in 2021. The language is expected to be included as part of the massive defense authorization bill next year.

“The question is: Will it be the status quo or an expansion? We want a clean renewal,” said Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our ask is that they support us and come out against the expansion.”

Going to the mat?

The issue has gained some traction recently on the national stage, as Democratic presidential candidates have taken a stand on the proposal. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren opposes the military expansion. And Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders came out against it earlier this week, citing his concerns for native tribes.

Nevada lawmakers have been measured in their public statements thus far, noting that military needs also need to be taken into consideration. But some lawmakers said this week they do not want to see the refuge compromised, if possible.

“I have serious concerns about the attempt to tear apart the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and reduce public access to some of Nevada’s natural treasures,” Democratic Rep. Dina Titus said in an email to the Current after her meeting with the group. “We must protect critical habitat and wildlife while protecting our military’s ability to carry out crucial training missions.”

Republican Rep. Mark Amodei said the meeting went well but that he also needs to see the Air Force’s “record of decision” on the wildlife refuge, which he expects in the next few months. 

“If we need to go to the mat on working something out that respects the refuge while allowing them to properly train then we will,” Amodei said in an email.

Jorge Silva, deputy chief of staff for Sen. Jacky Rosen, said she is committed to working with stakeholders. 

“She will continue to be a fierce defender of Nevada public lands in Congress by supporting legislation that allows our natural wonders to be protected while continuing to work on forward-thinking solutions that strengthen our nation’s defenses,” Silva said.

The 2.9-million-acre Nevada Test and Training Range is one of the most important military training grounds in the United States. It includes land in Clark, Lincoln and Nye counties.

Military officials want to expand their activity in the area. The Air Force wants access to  another 300,000 acres of the wildlife refuge that has previously been open to the public. It would cut off public access to the existing north and south entrances.

With that new land and the renewal of access to refuge land the military already uses, the Air Force would control over one million acres of the wildlife refuge, its entire western half.

The Air Force says it needs the additional space to practice for modern warfare and for the fly-over and bombing practice of new jets. 

But two veterans who joined the coalition for meetings this week say the expansion seems unnecessary.

“It just looks like a land grab,” said Jeoff Carlson, a former Navy pilot who has trained at the facility. “I want our men and women to have the best equipment, the best training, and the best chance of coming home. I would not support anything that hurts that. But this just doesn’t further that mission.”

Gabrielle D’Ayr, a Navy veteran who is now a public lands activist, said there “is not a veteran on the planet that does not support national security. There is a reason we did what we did. But we also want to have a place to protect.” 

Allison Winter
Allison Winter is a Washington D.C. correspondent for The Newsroom, a network of state-based non-profit news outlets that includes Nevada Current.

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