Nevada delegation teams up to expand Fallon bombing range
Fighters flying over the Fallon Range Training Complex in 2015. (U.S. Navy photo)
Nevada lawmakers have secured legislation that would nearly triple the size of a Naval air station bombing range near Fallon.
The bill is set to be included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual appropriations bill that must pass in order to fund the military, and will grant the Navy’s request for nearly 600,000 additional acres of Nevada public land Navy officials say are needed to train using modern aircraft and newer weapons systems with more range.
The Fallon expansion portion of the bill was championed by Nevada Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto in the Senate, and by Republican Mark Amodei in the House.
In the next few weeks, the NDAA legislation will go through the Senate and House before making it to President Joe Biden’s desk for signing. The legislation has been approved by key Senate and House committees and is expected to pass in the final version of the NDAA later this month, according to Cortez Masto’s office.
The bill will also open thousands of acres of public land for development in Churchill County and Lander County.
“The responsible expansion of the Navy’s Fallon Range Training Complex that I negotiated will improve our national security, fuel economic growth in Churchill County,” said Cortez Masto in a statement, adding that she worked closely Amodei and fellow Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen to ensure the expansion made it into the final NDAA.
Under the bill, the Fallon-Paiute Shoshone Tribe would receive $20 million for the establishment of the Numu Newe Cultural Heritage Center, meant to preserve traditional knowledge, culture, and language. The bill would also award the Walker River Paiute Tribe a $20 million settlement as compensation for thousands of acres of tribal land contaminated and polluted by military testing and training exercises, as well as more than 18,000 acres of land held in trust for the tribes to replace those lost to the bombing range expansion.
Other versions of the Fallon Range Training Complex expansion have failed to make it into the final appropriations bill, including competing bills by Cortez Masto and Amodei.
Tribal Nations in Nevada and conservationists uniformly panned Amodei’s original bill in 2020 to expand the Navy’s training range.
After extensive revisions Cortez Masto introduced an alternative proposal in 2020 that included some benefits for local Tribal Nations, but the bill failed to materialize in the final appropriations bill.
Earlier this year in July, Amodei submitted an amendment based on Cortez Masto’s bill in the House draft of the bill that was rejected on technicalities.
After five years of negotiations, the expansion is now on track to pass in the final version of the 2023 NDAA later this month.
“This measure represents one of the most significant pieces of Nevada lands legislation in our State’s history. The Nevada Delegation’s community-generated process to address both Naval aviation and SEAL training capabilities, as well as the needs of Churchill County, the Walker River Paiute Tribe, and the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe, ultimately led to the successful inclusion in this year’s NDAA,” said Amodei. “As it turns out, the inclusion of significant benefits for Tribal communities, conservationists, national defense interests, and local municipal governments, led to rare, overwhelming, bipartisan consensus that action is appropriate immediately. This is a clear recognition that there are such things as legitimate, responsible uses of public lands.”
Since the expansion was proposed by the Navy, rural communities, conservationists, recreationists, and Tribal Nations in Nevada have opposed each proposal.
Leaders with the Fallon-Paiute Shoshone Tribe have said expanding the bombing range would cut them off from ancestral lands that are essential to tribal culture and way of life. Years of bombing practice by the Navy have destroyed the tribe’s origin site at Fox Peak, a significant sacred site, say tribal officials.
The Fallon-Paiute Shoshone Tribe, along with the Walker River Paiute Tribe, the Lovelock Paiute Tribe and the Yomba Shoshone Tribe pushed for the creation of a three million acres national monument surrounding the Navy bombing range to permanently protect the area’s cultural and natural resources.
However, Amber Torres, Chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe called the settlement included in the final legislation proposed by the Nevada delegation a “landmark legislative settlement.”
“This is a momentous day where an historic injustice against the Walker River Paiute Tribe has been resolved because of the great leadership of Senator Catherine Cortez Masto in concert with the Nevada congressional delegation. We can now begin the healing process, with restored sacred lands, expansion of our tribal homeland, just compensation, and the opportunity for new economic development for the benefit of our people,” Torres said.
Echoing Cortez Masto’s past proposals, the bill would designate more than 580,000 acres in Northern Nevada as wilderness and conservation areas.
The bill does not include other major conservation measures Cortez Masto pushed for in past versions of the bill, including a prohibition on oil and gas production in nearly 350,000 acres of the Ruby Mountains and a 2,600 acre land transfer to the Washoe Tribe.
Many environmental groups in Nevada, including the Friends of Nevada Wilderness and The Conservation Lands Foundation, believe the bombing range expansion is inevitable, and have supported both Cortez Masto’s and Amodei’s legislation as a compromise.
“We are pleased to see the Wilderness and National Conservation Areas included, which will join the most spectacular natural, historical, cultural and archaeological sites in the country – the National Conservation Lands,” said Jocelyn Torres, conservation director of the Conservation Lands Foundation. “We appreciate the complexity and size of the challenge Senator Cortez Masto has addressed with this proposal and look forward to its passage.”
However, conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, the Great Basin Water Network, and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, have remained critical of the expansion despite compromises.
Patrick Donelly, the Great Basin director of the Center for Biological Diversity, called the bill “an enormous land grab.”
“Sen. Cortez Masto and Sen. Rosen have sold out Nevada’s public lands and wildlife,” said Donnelly. “They talk the talk about conservation, but when push comes to shove, they’re apparently willing to sacrifice our shared national heritage on the altar of the ever-expanding military-industrial complex.”
The expansion will significantly increase military airplane activity above the Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, a resting spot for migrating birds, say conservation groups. The refuge is also home to various wildlife including desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, golden eagles and the greater sage-grouse.
Conservationists also argue that the bill leaves room for the authorization of the Dixie Valley Water Project, a plan by Churchill County to pump 16.5 billion gallons of water a year and pipe it to Fallon to meet growing water demands. The project would likely imperil the Dixie Valley toad, a recently discovered species of toad unique to Nevada that was listed as an endangered species early this month, argues Donelly.
“This is a dark day for the public lands and wildlife of central Nevada,” said Donelly. “I’m outraged that Nevada’s senators are helping the military seize control of hundreds of thousands of acres of irreplaceable public land.”
Editor: This article was updated with a quote from Patrick Donelly, the Great Basin director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
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