A bipartisan deal reached by Congress on an annual defense policy bill keeps protections for Nevada’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge, blocking for at least one more year a military proposal to expand an Air Force bombing range.
Conservationists viewed the final agreement on the bill as an all-out victory, avoiding both the Air Force’s proposal and a compromise measure that would have traded some military expansion for separate wilderness designations.
The Air Force had for years signaled it would seek to expand the Nevada Test and Training Range, a 2.9 million-acre facility in southern Nevada that is the largest military operations site in the country, into the nearby wildlife refuge. The conference report for the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual bill that authorizes all military spending, renewed the Air Force range for 25 years, but did not expand its acreage.
The desert refuge, designated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is the largest national wildlife refuge in the contiguous United States and is a prime habitat for Nevada’s state mammal, the big-horned sheep, said Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada director for the national environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.
The Air Force published a notice in 2016 of its intent to add 300,000 acres to the testing and training site.
The Trump administration said in July the proposed expansion would allow for training for newer weapons systems. Conservationists, tribes, and Nevada’s House Democrats opposed the expansion.
Congress must periodically approve the use of facilities like the Nevada Testing and Training Site. Authority for the site is set to expire next year, which is what set up the expansion fight in this year’s defense authorization bill. The defense bill conference report unveiled on Thursday would renew the site for 25 years.
The conference report represents agreement among key lawmakers from both parties and chambers of Congress, though President Donald Trump has threatened a veto over separate issues.
U.S. Sen Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-Nev.), proposed a compromise earlier this year that was supported by some conservationists, but opposed by others. Her proposal would have added land to Fallon Naval Air Station in northern Nevada, while adding 585,000 acres of federal wilderness protection in the state.
Despite requests from the administration and military, neither chamber of Congress approved language to expand either Fallon or the Air Force site in defense bills passed earlier this year.
The closest Congress came to expanding the Air Force site came this summer when the House Armed Services Committee approved an amendment sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, that would have given the Air Force control over 850,000 acres of the refuge.
House Democrats stripped that amendment from the defense policy bill before passing it. The Senate did not include a similar provision.
Still, conservationists were wary the provision could have returned in the conference negotiations between House and Senate members.
“We were taking nothing for granted until yesterday,” Donnelly said in a Friday interview. “Until we saw that conference report, we still felt like we could lose everything.”
The dispute could be renewed as early as next year’s defense authorization bill.
A note in the conference report said an expansion of the site “is essential for the Nation’s tactical aviation readiness and improved ground forces training” and directed the Air Force “to work with the committees of jurisdiction, the Nevada congressional delegation, State, and Tribal stakeholders to secure a mutually-agreed upon expansion at NTTR.”
An Air Force spokeswoman declined to comment Friday.
Nevada tribes — including the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe, the Moapa Band of Paiutes and the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada — have opposed the expansion of the Fallon and the Air Force site, criticizing what they say is a lack of consultation and protection of culturally important sites.
“On behalf of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, we would like to thank all those who tirelessly gave their efforts and voice in this campaign to stop the Tuhut (Desert National Wildlife Refuge) land grab from military seizure,” said Greg Anderson Sr., Vice Chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, in a statement. “Our hearts are overwhelmed with gratitude on this victorious day and we send our prayers in the four directions to all those involved that you be blessed in all your efforts. We know there are many battles ahead of us and with your continued support we can stand together to protect our mother earth, wildlife, and the people who hold the land dearest to their hearts.”
Ed. note: This story has been revised to clarify that some conservation groups supported a compromise proposed earlier by Cortez Masto.