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About half an hour north of Las Vegas, wedged between highways 95 and 93, is the 1.6 million-acre Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
This rugged landscape is home to bighorn sheep, mule deer, cougars, and dozens of other wildlife species. It’s also a popular destination for backpackers, hikers and four-wheelers.
And now the Air Force wants it for flight training.
But they’ll have a fight on their hands against those who value the refuge for conservation and recreation. And they’ll need approval from Congress.
Right now, the Air Force shares jurisdiction of the area with the Department of Fish and Wildlife; however, Fish and Wildlife have primary jurisdiction.
The Air Force would like to change that so it has primary jurisdiction, which will allow it to expand its use of the land.
It says it is needed because there is so much training going inside the Nevada Test and Training Range that it is becoming a safety and capacity problem.
Colonel Chris Zuhlke is the commander of the range. He told KNPR's State of Nevada if they are allowed to expand into the southern part of the range it will help alleviate those issues.
"This expansion will allow us to better manage our overall airspace use," he said, "It will allow us to better manage the scenarios that are largely flown on the north ranges because that’s where our infrastructure primarily exists.”
He says if the idea is approved by Congress the Air Force will still have to go through environmental impact studies for every project that follows the initial approval, which means every road or fence or piece of equipment will still have to have a low impact on the environment.
Jose Witt is the Southern Nevada director for Friends of Nevada Wilderness and his big concern about the Air Forces' proposal is how it will hurt access to the refuge.
“We’re really concerned that what the Air Force is proposing is to basically lock the public out of their refuge,” he said, “Their expansion proposal looks to eliminate more than half of what’s available to the public right now.”
He said currently people can go almost 70 miles through refuge without being blocked but if the Air Force gets its way it would be limited to about 40 miles.
Besides the closures, Witt is worried about the impact the new infrastructure will have on the pristine landscape.
For Brett Jefferson, the worry is the wildlife.
Jefferson is the board chairman for Wild Sheep Foundation. He said currently there are between 600 and 800 bighorn sheep in the refuge area under consideration.
“Our biggest concern is access to manage wildlife, to manage the water developments that have been constructed to enhance and perpetuate the habitat for the wildlife," he said.
The water developments are manmade areas that collect rainwater to make sure the wildlife can survive the brutal summer heat.
Jefferson said his foundation fully supports military readiness but there needs to be a balance, especially when it comes to the bighorn sheep.
“They are irreplaceable," he said, "They are the whole reason that the Desert National Wildlife Refuge was founded.”
Colonel Zuhlke said he fully understands that there needs to be a balance between the military mission and the stewardship of the land.
“We are first and foremost stewards of this land that’s been withdrawn for our use," he said, "So, we well and dutiful understand our responsibilities as users of this pristine land to maintain it best we can and to get our mission accomplished with minimal impact as possible.”
The next step for the plan's opponents is to go to Nevada's congressional leaders to express their concerns.
Colonel Chris Zuhlke, Nevada Test and Training Range Commander, USAF;
Jose Witt, Southern Nevada Director, Friends of Nevada Wilderness;
Brett Jefferson, board chairman, Wild Sheep Foundation
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