The U.S. military is asking Congress for control over more public land in Nevada, and much of that could come at the expense of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest wildlife refuge outside of Alaska.
That has the state of Nevada, environmentalists and tribes all stepping up to condemn the proposal.
The military has been using land in the Nevada desert since the 1940s, for everything from fighter pilot training to atomic bomb testing. And whatever the heck happens at Area 51.
“The activities that we do here in some cases are not really well understood by the public. There’s good reason for that,” said Col. Chris Zuhlke of the U.S. Air Force.
Zuhlke is the commander of the Nevada Test and Training Range, a sprawling 2.9 million acre expanse of military training land, the largest such site in the world.
“There’s nowhere else in the world that exists with the capabilities that this range has,” Zuhlke said.
The range is constantly evolving to keep up with changing technology and military needs.
For example, Zuhlke says some weapons now have wings which allow them to travel ten times farther than they used to. And then there are advanced jets and GPS-based weapons that require more space to be able to test safely.
“All of those things combined demonstrate how small even a space like this can be,” he said.
227,000 acres would come from the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
Kevin DesRoberts manages the refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says he’d prefer that the current land agreement stay in place, rather than giving the military control over more prime wildlife habitat.
“It’s the largest last remaining intact habitat for Desert Bighorn Sheep. So this is it for the species. This is the stronghold,” said DesRoberts.
Plus, the sheep is the refuge’s keystone species.
“It’s a large, charismatic species that really is a surrogate for hundreds of other species that also depend on this landscape for their survival,” DesRoberts said.
It’s also an important cultural species for indigenous communities here. Fawn Douglas is an artist and member of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe.
“The Bighorn Sheep sacrificed itself to our people so that we can live and survive,” Douglas said. “And to respect the animal, we have songs, we have dances about it, and a covenant with it to protect its home. And to stand up for it.”
The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe and the Moapa Band of Paiutes have both passed formal resolutions opposing military expansion into the refuge.
The Air Force did reach out to tribal communities in the region about the environmental impact of the expansion. But Douglas says this outreach wasn’t done in good faith, because she says the Air Force didn’t work with elected tribal officials.
“Our elected officials are the voices of the tribe and it’s really important to respect sovereignty and that government-to-government relationship. And what the local governments have done is strongly oppose the taking of that land at the refuge,” Douglas said.
And tribal governments aren’t the only ones who are protesting. The state of Nevada also passed a resolution urging Congress to oppose the expansion.
Julia Ratti is a state senator and co-sponsor of that resolution. She says cutting off public access to the roughly 17% of the refuge just isn’t acceptable.
“The training mission is critically important,” Ratti said. “But I believe that if you look at the balancing test here, if you look at the critical habitat that we’re talking about, we have to balance the needs of all of the public lands’ users and not always prioritize the military.”
With all that said, Ratti realizes there isn’t much the state can do.
“The tools that the legislature has available to them are a resolution, and that is a way to show that this is what at least the state governing body believes, and to send that information back to Washington, D.C. and hope that they listen,” she said.
The Department of Interior is reviewing the Air Force’s proposal and will present its recommendations to Congress before the current agreement expires in November 2021.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.