It looks like the transfer of more than 900,000 acres of Nevada public land to military ownership just got less likely.
The Senate Armed Services Committee advanced the National Defense Authorization Act last week authorizing $8.15 billion for military construction for the coming fiscal year, but those plans did not include the controversial land expansions of the Naval Air Station Fallon and the Nevada Test and Training Range.
The committee, led by Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, advanced the proposed legislation on an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 25-2. The bill is now headed to the Senate floor for consideration.
“Senator Cortez Masto celebrates the language she helped craft with the Senate Armed Services Committee that secures a status-quo extension of the Nevada Test and Training Range (and the Fallon Naval Air Station),” said Ryan King, communications director for Cortez Masto in an email.
Navy officials argue the Naval Air Station Fallon requires additional acres to safely train using modern aircraft and newer weapons systems with more range. The Navy is requesting 600,000 plus acres of public land and about 60,000 acres of private and state-owned land for an expansion, almost tripling the acreage it already controls.
Similarly, the Air Force proposed expanding the Nevada Test and Training Range just outside Las Vegas by about 300,000 acres for training purposes, closing off a part of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge that is currently open to the public.
Neighboring tribes, conservation groups and some rural towns have opposed the expansion of both training ranges asking that any existing land withdrawals in Nevada with the military only be extended, not expanded.
Nevada tribes — including the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe, the Moapa Band of Paiutes and the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe — have strongly opposed the expansion of both training ranges.
Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribal Chairman Len George has said the expansion of Navy training on Paiute Shoshone traditional lands would destroy burial grounds and other sacred cultural sites while cutting off public lands for religious and cultural activities like gathering, hunting, ceremonies and burials.
The Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, which represents 27 member tribal nations in Nevada, wrote a resolution supporting the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe and other tribal nations in opposition to the planned expansion.
Laura Parry, chairwoman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, said that while the tribe takes matters of national security very seriously, a lack of proper consultation left them with “no other choice than to vehemently oppose the expansion” of the Nevada Test and Training Range.
The U.S. Air Force is responsible for inventorying, evaluating, and protecting cultural resources, including archaeological sites on the range which includes cultural sites for the Moapa Band of Paiutes, the Las Vegas Paiute Colony, and other Southern Paiute People.
Parry said leadership at the Nellis Air Force Base has a “legal and moral responsibility to protect these resources” which she believes they have failed to do.
“The Moapa Band of Paiutes will continue to seek support in protecting our culture before the Air Force completely destroys it,” Parry said in a statement.
“We are particularly grateful to the staff of Senator Cortez Masto, who gave us significant time in the last few weeks to help stop the Defense Department’s attempt to sneak the expansion language into must-pass legislation under the cover of social turmoil.”
The expansion would also cut off public access in five rural counties: Churchill, Lander, Mineral, Pershing, and Nye, leading some rural business owners to fear the proposal would irreparably harm small town economies.
Nevada state director for the conservation group, Center for Biological Diversity, Patrick Donnelly called the proposed legislation “promising.”
“It’s pretty remarkable,” said Donnelly. “This is what we’ve asked for since day one and here we are four years after this campaign launched, staring victory in the face.”
“If this legislation were to go through, it would be a complete and categorical victory for opponents of the military land grabs.”
The Senate version of the National Authorization Act is a result of “long, sustained engagement” between Cortez Masto, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the U.S. Air Force, and Nevada’s tribal and conservation communities, as well as state and local leaders, according to Cortez Masto’s office.
Final legislation will need to pass through the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee which has not yet introduced its own version of the National Authorization Act, but prior actions indicate Nevada House members are mixed on the Naval Air Station Fallon expansion.
Last month, Republican Rep. Mark Amodei introduced a bill that would transfer about 750,000 acres out of public lands across the state for military use and local economic development, including the transfer requested by the Naval Air Station Fallon. Democratic Representatives Dina Titus, Steven Horsford, and Susie Lee have remained largely silent on the expansion of the naval air station.
“While the legislation still needs to see action on the Senate floor, the Senator will continue to advocate for its passage and for the voices of all Nevadans to be heard,” King said.