(Editor's note: This conversation originally aired July 2020)
Could the fight over control of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge be over?
For two years, environmentalists, hunters, tribal leaders and others have fought the U.S. Air Force, which wants to take over vast portions of the 1.6 million-acre refuge north of Las Vegas for training.
Last week, the House passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. The amendment essentially protects the desert refuge from encroachment by the Air Force.
“It extends the agreement between the Air Force, who has the Nevada Test and Training Range, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that manages the desert refuge. If you were to look at a map, it keeps everything on the ground as is,” explained Grace Palermo, director of Southern Nevada programs for Friends of Nevada Wilderness.
The group started the campaign "Don't Bomb the Bighorn" in 2017 to oppose the Air Force's plan.
The Air Force and Fish and Wildlife Service jointly manage several thousand acres where the Nevada Test and Training Range and the desert refuge overlap.
The Air Force wanted to take over those acres to expand its testing area. Palmero said that if the defense bill passes the current agreement between the Department of Defense and the Department of Interior will extend for another 20 years.
The Senate has also passed a defense bill and now the House bill and the Senate bill are in conference committee where lawmakers will reconcile any differences.
“We’re concerned that there may be a total surprise coming out of conference committee,” Palermo said.
She said there is a lot more than can happen before the bill becomes law.
“So, there’s a lot more in play that the Air Force can still be working with members of Congress to get their proposal to take over more of that area for training,” she said.
Palermo said some of the biggest concerns for opponents of the Air Force's plan are the impacts on wildlife like desert bighorn sheep that need a lot of areas to roam.
If the Air Force gets its way, opponents say fences and roads will hurt wildlife habitat.
There are also concerns about access to areas of the refuge that are significant for the Southern Paiute Tribe.
“If they were to have that land, we really don’t know the on-the-ground impacts that could happen to these culturally significant areas as well as any of the areas that the Air Force would be using,” she said.
Palermo noted that even if the extension of the joint management agreement is extended in the defense bill the Air Force can return year after year to ask for the training area it wants.
“Really the only way to prevent that from happening going forward is to protect all the areas in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge that are proposed as wilderness as actual designated wilderness and that would prevent the Air Force from any future grabs of the area," she said.
Grace Palermo, Southern Nevada programs director, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Rep. Steve Horsford, D-NV.