The Air Force wants to expand into Nevada’s wild desert

A 300,000-acre base expansion would push into intact bighorn sheep habitat.

 

One morning this January, I accompanied a group of environmental advocates to the northern tip of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, 100 miles north of Las Vegas. A short hike brought us to a boulder with a petroglyph of bighorn sheep, eroded after thousands of years of exposure. A more recent traveler left a mark nearby as well, etching the letters “U” and “S.”  “I wonder who did the ‘US,’” said Christian Gerlach, the Sierra Club’s Nevada organizer. “Was it the Air Force or one of the cavalrymen?” By cavalrymen, he meant federal troops encountering bands of Paiute in this region in the 19th century. By Air Force, he meant the entity trying to gain control of this land today.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt first protected the area in 1936, as a game range for bighorn sheep. But just four years later, the U.S. War Department began using part of it as a bombing and gunnery range. Since then, the Air Force has gained a total of 2.9 million acres for its Nevada Test and Training Range. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service co-manages 846,000 of those acres as part of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge — the largest federal wildlife refuge in the Lower 48. Now, the Air Force hopes to gain sole jurisdiction and expand its range to include another 300,000 federal acres, most of it refuge land, leaving the refuge with less than 500,000 acres.

A desert bighorn sheep in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, where the species has a uniquely intact habitat.
Courtesy of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

Environmentalists fear the expansion could threaten a uniquely intact habitat for desert bighorn sheep, the threatened desert tortoise and hundreds of other plants and animals. A dry lakebed, a relic of the landscape’s prehistoric past, could become a landing strip, kicking up dust and disrupting wildlife corridors. The Air Force has also proposed building 30 “emitters,” to simulate threats in training exercises, which would require a network of roads that could disturb wildlife habitat.

In its 1,000-page draft environmental impact statement, the Air Force explains that modern aircraft, which fly higher and faster than ever, require more space to train safely. The Nevada range is the nation’s pre-eminent Air Force training ground and hosts dozens of allied forces from around the world. Every other air space in the country is saturated with flights, making southern Nevada the only option for expansion.

The Department of Defense has a mixed record when it comes to land stewardship in the West. Ecosystems sometimes thrive under military jurisdiction, because they are protected from the kind of development that eats up open space elsewhere. A program at the Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona, for example, helped rescue the endangered Sonoran pronghorn from the brink of extinction after debilitating drought in the early 2000s. A buffer zone outside Washington’s Hanford Site, where plutonium was once produced for nuclear weapons, became an accidental wilderness where biodiversity thrives. The military has its own experts to ensure training activity adheres to environmental and archeological protection laws.

At a public hearing last month in Beatty, Nevada, James Sample, an employee at Colorado State University on detail at the Pentagon to help facilitate the Air Force expansion, told me, “If we see a sheep, we are not allowed to bomb it.”

Refuge manager Amy Sprunger said the land under co-management with the Air Force is in “pretty good shape.” Many places are even pristine, she said, “because of national wildlife refuge system regulations.” The Air Force “is regulated more or less by us.” Sprunger considers the current 750 bighorn sheep a healthy herd. She gets annual reports from the Air Force, but her own staffers are allowed onto the testing range only three weeks of the year. When I asked her how the Air Force is ultimately held accountable for land stewardship, she said, “It’s an excellent question. You don’t know what you don’t know.” She’s most worried about what will happen if the Air Force kicks her agency off that part of the refuge, as it has proposed. Sprunger supports allowing the Air Force to continue using its range, but not expand or take sole jurisdiction.

A sign warns people about the Air Force range near the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada.
Courtesy of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

Aside from environmental concerns, expansion worries Southern Paiute tribal members, as well as hunters and recreationists. Sprunger estimates about 40,000 people each year visit the refuge’s rugged mountains and Joshua tree forests, mostly entering through the southern tip near Las Vegas. That entrance would remain accessible, but much of the western slope of the iconic Sheep Range would be off-limits.

Loss of access is a major concern for many in the 350-member Moapa Band of Paiutes, whose reservation lies just to the east, and whose broader ancestral lands span much of southern Nevada. On the refuge, harvesting medicinal herbs and big game often requires permits. But on Air Force land, the Moapa have to make a special appointment to access traditional resources. “People say, ‘It’s just desert,’ but it means a lot to us,” said Tribal Council Chairman Greg Anderson.

The Air Force will incorporate public comments into a final environmental impact statement by the end of this year. It hopes to pass a withdrawal and expansion plan through Congress by 2020.

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada.
Courtesy of Friends of Nevada Wilderness

Tay Wiles is an associate editor for High Country News. 

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