Military and enviros align in Arizona’s public lands debate

Demand for housing, recreation and energy development means military bases could lose essential buffer land.


For 30 years, Jim Uken served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, stationed in places like Germany, Iceland and Bahrain. After he returned to U.S. soil, he joined the Department of Defense as director of the Air Force’s range management office of the Barry M. Goldwater military training complex in southwestern Arizona.

During his 12 years there, Uken became familiar with the ins and outs of the sensitive desert land he managed. He oversaw range residue removal efforts — sending trainees to collect rubble from target practice. He watched owls and turkey vultures fly across the border between the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the range. And he helped in one of the military’s most notable conservation programs to date — bringing back the endangered Sonoran pronghorn from the brink of extirpation. The pronghorn, pushed out of former habitat areas by development, first sought out the range as a refuge of last resort during the drought in the early 2000s.

A U.S. Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopter with the Alaska Air National Guard lands at the Barry M. Goldwater Range in the Sonoran Desert outside Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
Air Combat Command Unit

But Uken also saw the impact Sonoran pronghorn could have on military operations. Crews monitored target areas for the species, and on days when they spotted pronghorn, tactical target practice was shut down. As the animal’s population increased, more and more incidents occurred, seriously impeding training programs.

Such encroachment on military operations, created by development near bases, is increasingly a problem in Arizona, especially in the Sun Corridor — the megapolitan area that runs from Nogales to Prescott, where population is projected to hit 9.1 million by 2040. The associated demand for housing, recreation, solar and wind energy, and mining means military bases could lose essential buffer land and corridors to those other uses. 

Military training depends on extensive, battlefield-realistic landscapes, especially open desert areas that mimic conditions in the Middle East. In Arizona, designated military bases make up only four percent of the landmass — but pilots practice in airspace corridors that cover roughly 52 percent of the state. If encroachment on those corridors contributes to base closures or mission relocations, that threatens military readiness and the $9 billion military economy.

A recent report from the Sonoran Institute, a community-focused nonprofit, recommends ways that military commands can protect their operations by reducing the threat of encroachment, especially through the conservation of publicly-owned land — thus aligning two values often seen as opposing.  

The Department of Defense has often worked out development details on private land near bases with local officials to ensure projects won’t conflict with military operations. But on multiple-use lands managed by the state and the federal government, military interests aren’t always fully considered.

Of particular concern, the report says, is acreage managed by the Arizona State Land Department in trust. More than 150,000 acres of that land lie within two miles of a military facility and there are few ways for the military to prevent development, short of purchasing it or getting voters to approve its transfer. Moreover, this land is often rich in minerals and other resources, making it especially vulnerable to a change in use.

Federal public lands near military bases aren’t necessarily safe, either. Since 1962, more than 2.4 million acres of federal land in Arizona has been transferred to private ownership. In some cases, exchanges, like those near Luke Air Force Base, have paved the way for residential development. 

Sonoran Institute

Permanent protection of buffer lands can shield military facilities from such encroachment, which can take many forms – like light pollution that hinders the Flagstaff naval observatory. While direct threats like housing development have the most impact, there are indirect ramifications, too. For example, outside disturbances, like construction projects, can result in the spread of invasive species onto military facilities, changing the character of the battlefield, and in some cases, development projects like solar panels create a “lake effect,” mimicking water, which attracts birds that interfere with flight operations.

Two days after the Sonoran Institute report was released, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, reintroduced a package of three public land bills. The bills would establish two National Conservation Areas and two Special Management Areas in the Sonoran Desert west of Phoenix and designate 3,325 square miles of the Santa Cruz Valley as a National Heritage Area, among other things. "This bill helps preserve important wildlife lands outside (the Barry Goldwater Range, Luke Air Force Base and other facilities), which in turn helps the military avoid costly endangered species mitigation measures if wildlife are potentially pushed into smaller and smaller pockets of land,” Uken told The Wilderness Society.

In addition to permanent conservation actions, the Sonoran Institute report, which will be publicly discussed at meetings across the state this month, advocates tools such as inter-agency coordination, memorandums of understanding and joint land-use studies. Such alternatives are important, given that not everyone sees the benefit of public lands to the military mission.

In Nevada, Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy criticized Obama’s recent designation of Basin and Range National Monument, arguing the site could impede military exercises in the Nevada desert. The monument lies under the airspace of the Nevada Test and Training Range, with nearly 20,000 aircraft missions flown in the area in 2014.

When asked whether monument designation might impair military efforts, however, Ian Dowdy, program director at the Sonoran Institute responded “show me the proof,” saying there was no record of an actual negative impact.

If anything, the relationship between conservation and the military is mutually beneficial. “There’s a quote out there,” recalls Mike Quigley, Arizona State director for The Wilderness Society. “‘A country worth defending is a country worth preserving.’” If the U.S. military fights for public lands, it will ultimately benefit the mission — and conservation — in the long run.

Gloria Dickie is an editorial intern at High Country News. 

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