In the Mojave Desert, the preservation of life

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Bighorn sheep at a water "guzzler" on the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, photographed by a motion sensor camera. (USFWS photo).

The Mojave Desert is nothing short of magical. Its history is encapsulated in the very grains of the limestone rocks. It is culturally significant to the many Tribal Nations who have called these lands home long before the first colonial settlers, and the hundreds of unique wildlife species need the desertscape to survive.

This month, I joined a collective sigh of relief from Tribal Nations, local communities and conservationists as Congress denied an expansion of military ranges on these lands. Our Nevada delegation— Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Reps. Steven Horsford and Dina Titus— successfully fought to ensure that more of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and other Tribal and public lands did not become expanded bomb and testing sites for the Air Force and Navy.

The importance of national security is well-noted and respected in our state. The Air Force and Navy already host significant testing operations here, using millions of acres of land in Nevada for their drills and tests. But with the requested expansion, the proposed additions to the Nellis and Fallon military operations would have seized 1.7 million more acres of land. We are grateful that Nevada’s leaders fought this proposal in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, and extended the military operations as “status quo” — meaning Nellis and Fallon can still conduct their current testing where they do now, but they will not have more acres for the next 25 years.

Sacrificing Nevada’s natural heritage for the claim of national security is a false choice we do not have to make. These treasured places deserve permanent protection, not destruction. That is why Sen. Cortez Masto’s bill to protect these lands as wilderness is a commonsense next step. The Desert National Wildlife Refuge and Nevada Test and Training Range Withdrawal and Management Act will help ensure these places have plans that prioritize conservation, cultural preservation and stewardship. We must solidify protections for these lands and ensure Tribal access, consultation and their ability to conduct their cultural practices and pass down inter-generational education as the priority.

The Desert Refuge and surrounding lands in the Mojave Desert have faced continued damage, not just from bombing, but also road and fence building and other military activities that significantly inhibit wildlife migration. The Pintwater Cave, a site religiously and culturally significant to the Moapa Band of Paiutes and all Southern Paiute Peoples in the Desert Refuge, was repeatedly used for target practice where bomb testing collapsed the cave’s walls. It has been years, but cultural representatives of the Moapa Band note that the damage is still significant.

And in 1969, the Air Force once mistook a Fish and Wildlife Service Ranger Station at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge as a target. My late father’s friend Bruce Campbell was working at the Refuge when the Air Force almost bombed the ranger station. Fortunately, they missed the target, but still blew out every single window at the station. Bruce was lucky that day, but many of the sites, habitat and nature on the Refuge are not. Expanding that damage would be disastrous.

Protecting these lands— for the sake of saving wildlife and habitat, allowing them to work as carbon sinks, and doing justice to our Tribal Nations who consider many of these places sacred— cannot be overstated. We are in a worsening mass extinction— the first in our planet’s history that is caused by humans, a climate crisis that is taking a particular toll on Nevada’s finite water resources, and an ongoing reckoning with our country’s deeply racist past and its continuation into society today. We cannot right any of these wrongs entirely, but taking steps to ensure we make meaningful choices to protect our lands, the wildlife that needs them for survival, and the Tribal Nations who carry on traditional practices in these places makes us better stewards.

Last year, during a trip to the Refuge, Moapa Band Vice Chairman Greg Anderson looked over the landscape and asked: “They are supposed to be protecting our cultural resources. Is this protecting them — dropping a bomb on them?”

It is our moral responsibility as Nevadans to ensure these places are protected from more militarization, damage and the future threats of our changing climate. Passing wilderness protections for the Desert Refuge means we can save land for wildlife habitat and climate adaptation, and significantly increase Tribal access for the Moapa Band and other Nations who are deeply connected and dependent on these landscapes.

It is my wish— as a lifelong Nevadan and someone dedicated to protecting the public lands in our state— that the generations that come after us will be able to soak in the spectacular nature that exists just miles outside of Las Vegas. The Desert National Wildlife Refuge, ancestral lands, and public lands across our state should be protected, not bombed.

Christian Gerlach
Christian Gerlach is an organizer for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign.