Sen. Cortez Masto: Desert Refuge Compromise Balances Air Force Mission With Recreation, Conservation

For two years, environmentalists, hunters, jeepers, tribal leaders and other Nevadans who love recreating in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge have been waiting to see what lay in store for it.  


The 1.6 million-acre refuge about an hour north of Las Vegas shares portions of acreage between the U.S. Air Force and the Fish and Wildlife Service, and their land-use agreement is due for renewal. 


The Air Force had proposed to take over sole jurisdiction – and more than a million acres – of the area, saying it needed the land in order to bring its ability to conduct training maneuvers up to date. 

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But their proposal elicited a public outcry that, apparently, was heard all the way to Washington, D.C., where U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto recently introduced compromise legislation

“It really identifies a clear boundary within the Desert National Wildlife Refuge so that some of that land will continue to be used by the Air Force for their necessary training and then allows the remaining Desert Wildlife Refuge to continue to be used for outdoor use,” Cortez Masto told KNPR's State of Nevada.

She said the main boundary is Alamo Road, which runs north and south through the refuge.

In addition, the bill requires a Memorandum of Understanding between the Air Force and Fish and Wildlife for the 45,000 acres of land that they co-manage. 

Cortez Masto said the memorandum will help the two agencies work better together.

The bill would also create a new Tribal Resource Officer position that would work with the Air Force and Fish and Wildlife on protecting culturally relevant resources on the land.

It will also create an interagency committee to resolve any management issues and an intergovernmental executive committee so all stakeholders will be able to exchange views and ideas on managing the land.

Originally, the Air Force had wanted to take over more land in the refuge. It says it needs more area for training in more modern warfare techniques and equipment. 

“Clearly, they had a proposal that took more acreage and this to me was the compromise,” Sen. Cortez Masto said.

While the senator believes the bill is a good compromise, Mark Salvo with the Defenders of Wildlife sees some areas of improvement, specifically in the part of the legislation addressing the co-managed piece of land.

“The concern with the joint-management area is that it’s primarily given over to military use and excludes the service from actually managing the refuge for wildlife,” he said.

Salvo said that wildlife managers can't get into the area to check water resources, soil and water contamination, manage public use, look for invasive plant species and a lot more.

In addition, Salvo and his group don't believe the Air Force needs the extra 50,000 acres it is being allotted in the proposal.

"We’re concerned that the Air Force has never sufficiently demonstrated a need for that expansion onto refuge habitat and that that expansion ultimately would not resolve the military’s claimed need for expanding combat training on those public lands because it wouldn't necessarily account for any mishaps or misdirection of weaponry that they use or practice on the refuge.”

In other words, if the Air Force made a mistake, the extra 50,000 acres isn't enough to protect the public anyway. Defenders of Wildlife would rather the Air Force not get any extra area in the refuge.

Now, the bill will be introduced in the committees of jurisdiction, Cortez Masto said. From there, she hopes it will make its way through to the full House and Senate and onto the president's desk.

Salvo said now is a perfect time for people interested in improving the bill to contact Nevada's Congressional Delegation. However, he pointed out the Department of Defense likely has a different view of the proposal. 

He said the department will have a lawmaker propose another bill with vastly different ideas of what to do with the refuge, which means a compromise will have to be made between the DOD and Sen. Cortez Masto's bill. 


U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, D-NV.; Mark Salvo, Vice President of Landscape Conservation, Defenders of Wildlife

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