11 US Air Force Seeks to Control Seventy Percent of Nevada’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge

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“More than 32,000 people have submitted comments opposing a military takeover of most of Nevada’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge,” the Center for Biological Diversity reported in March 2018. In order to expand its Nevada Test and Training Range, the US Air Force wants to take control of nearly 70 percent of the 1.6-million-acre refuge. That would give more than two-thirds of the refuge to the US military and would strip protections for wildlife and restrict public access.

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 designated the refuge as a site for the protection of desert bighorn sheep. The Mojave desert tortoise—which has long been in danger due to human destruction of its habitat—is among the many species that inhabit the refuge.

As the Center for Biological Diversity reported, the Air Force’s plans call for industrializing the largely untouched wildlands with dozens of miles of new roads, more than one hundred miles of fencing, two air strips, and radio signal emitters.

In January 2018, more than two hundred people attended a public meeting in Las Vegas hosted by the Air Force, and everyone who spoke opposed the land seizure. Many of the attendees joined together to chant, “Don’t bomb the bighorn!”

As Tay Wiles reported in a February 2018 High Country News article, loss of access to the land is a “major concern” for the Moapa Band of Paiutes, whose reservation is east of the refuge. Their ancestral lands span much of southern Nevada, and today the Moapa rely on access to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge for traditional resources, including medicinal herbs and big game. “People say, ‘It’s just desert,’ but it means a lot to us,” Tribal Council Chairman Greg Anderson told High Country News.

The Air Force is required to respond to public comments in a final environmental impact statement, which is expected in Fall 2018. Congress will decide the fate of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge when it takes action on the Air Force’s final recommendation. 

Media coverage of public opposition to the Air Force plan has been almost nonexistent. In December 2017 the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a story on the topic, with a follow-up report in January 2018 that focused on opposition to the plan. The closest thing to a corporate media organization covering the topic was NBC’s Las Vegas affiliate, KSNV. Its coverage was brief, though it did provide the dates and locations of the Air Force’s public hearings on the proposed plan.

The Air Force’s plans for the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada are part of a broader trend toward military expropriation of public lands. The US Navy is secretly conducting electromagnetic warfare training over the Olympic National Forest in Washington; the Air Force wants to test new high-speed weapons—“hypersonics”—in the air space above more than 700,000 acres of public land in Utah, beyond the boundaries of its current Test and Training Range; and, in May 2018, E&E News reported that House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-UT) had added provisions to the latest version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would “permit indefinite land withdrawals from the Interior Department for military installations with an integrated natural resources management plan.” E&E reported that the language of this provision is “nearly identical” to a previous bill (H.R. 4299) that passed the Natural Resources Committee in November 2017 before being struck down in conference.

“Thousands Oppose Trump Administration’s Attempted Seizure of Nevada’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge for Expanded Bombing Range,” Center for Biological Diversity, March 8, 2018, https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/news/press_releases/2018/desert-bighorn-sheep-03-08-2018.php.

Tay Wiles, “The Air Force Wants to Expand into Nevada’s Wild Desert,” High Country News, February 14, 2018, https://www.hcn.org/issues/50.4/military-the-air-force-wants-to-expand-into-nevadas-wild-desert.

Student Researcher: Ky Tucker (College of Western Idaho)

Faculty Evaluator: Michelle Mahoney (College of Western Idaho)