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The Desert Refuge Won't Be a Bombing Range (For Now)

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Photo by Christopher Smith

Activists have been fighting to stop the U.S. Air Force from claiming a significant portion of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge for its bombing range.

People who like to recreate at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, and more importantly the Paiutes for whom it is ancestral land, scored a victory on June 11 in their fight to keep the U.S. Air Force from adding a huge chunk of the refuge to its bombing range. But it’s a complicated victory.

 

For those who haven’t followed the saga, the Desert Refuge, as it’s commonly called, overlaps the Nevada Test and Training Range, or NTTR. The Fish & Wildlife Service (which is under the Department of Interior) manages the refuge; the Air Force (under the Department of Defense), runs the NTTR. The current agreement for the public lands’ use expires next year. For the renewal, the Air Force had proposed switching control of a large part of the overlapping area from Interior to Defense, in order to expand the NTTR for training exercises.

 

On June 11, the Senate Armed Services Committee released the executive summary of its suggested National Defense Authorization Act, the vehicle that’s been used to extend or modify the NTTR’s land-use plan. The act included only one mention of the issue: “The bill … extends the land withdrawals for both Fallon Range Training Complex as well as the Nevada Test and Training Range.” It’s not much, right? So what does it mean?

 

Grace Palermo, Las Vegas programs director for Friends of Nevada Wilderness, which has spearheaded the opposition to the Air Force’s plan, offers this explanation.

 

What does that one sentence in the executive summary mean?

Our understanding is, it extends the status quo rather than doing any expansion or change.

 

Are you sure?

We think so, yes, and in talking to Nevada’s congressional delegation, that’s their understanding as well.

 

What is the next step for the Defense Authorization Act?

There are quite a few steps, actually. The Senate Armed Services has done their markup, and that will go to debate on the floor of the Senate. Then the Senate votes. That same process will happen in the House — the House Armed Services Committee will do their markup and send to House floor for a vote. The House is lagging behind where the Senate committee is on their markup.

 

So the Air Force could still get its proposal into the bill?

Yes, there’s still room for things to change, so it’s certainly not time to declare victory.

 

Last December, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto floated a compromise bill with less of an expansion to the training range and an added 1.3 million acres of wilderness. Apart from that, are there other opportunities for the Air Force to push its proposal through?

I think it will happen through the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act). Some of the language from Senator Cortez Mast’s bill could be included in that, but I don’t think separate legislation will be considered.

 

Why?

Because it’s related to military and something that must pass, and because Congress has a lot to work on right now, so to debate another bill would be unlikely.

 

What is Friends of Nevada Wilderness doing on the issue now?

It really is in the hands of Congress now, so we’re preparing for the chance – whether it’s in the House Armed Services Committee or elsewhere – that there are changes going forward. And we’re keeping the public informed, because they’re the ones who would lose access to the Desert Refuge.

 

The 2021 renewal is for 20 years. That doesn’t preclude the Air Force from trying this again before 2041?

No, and that’s what’s happened historically. There are those other opportunities, such as the NDAA, for changes to be made. If the NDAA goes forward as the Senate has proposed, with no expansion of the NTTR, and the refuge stays as is for another 20 years, we could see, every year for 20 years, these kinds of proposed changes. We’ve seen more than once in the last 5-6 years, the military has included the DNWR in their NDAA

 

Can you prevent that somehow?

One way would be through wilderness designation, which is what we want. The Fish & Wildlife Service is managing the proposed wilderness areas (in the refuge) as they’re mandated to, so there can be no on-the-ground impacts such as roads, fencing, and landing strips. If those lands got their permanent wilderness designation, the military would no longer have the opportunity to make those changes in the future.

 

How would that have to happen?

Whether in the NDAA or a different bill, it has to go through Congress.

 

When do you expect the next action on this?

We don’t know the dates for the next steps, but the NDAA is important because it funds the military, so it won’t be put off. We expect it to be pretty soon.

 

U.S. Air Force photo: iStock

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