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A multi-year campaign convinced Congress to reject two military base expansions in Nevada — at least for now

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg

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Everything will stay the same, for now.

Last week, Congress approved the National Defense Authorization Act, considered a must-pass bill because it funds the military and lays out annual defense spending. In Nevada, the notable news was not what was included in the legislation. The news was what Congress left out.

After three years of heated public meetings, backroom lobbying, proposed compromises and bipartisan resolutions from the Legislature, Congress rejected two military proposals to expand testing and training ranges onto hundreds of thousands of acres of public land, including the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and land that is sacred to Native American communities. 

No one expected Congress to flatly reject the proposals. At the same time, nobody expects the rejection to be permanent. The military is expected to continue pushing for the expansions.

The conventional wisdom was that the Air Force and the Navy, lobbying members of Congress outside of Nevada, would get at least a partial expansion of their respective training ranges. The Air Force operates the Nevada Test and Training Range north of Las Vegas. The Navy operates the Fallon Naval Air Station in Northern Nevada. Each branch said it needed more land to train.

For years, they articulated the same specification: To simulate modern warfare, they required more land to practice dropping ordances from greater distances and at greater elevations.

The public process for the two expansions kicked off in 2016 and continued in the following years as each branch conducted an environmental review of what withdrawing hundreds of thousands of acres for military use would mean for Indigenous communities, wildlife, hunters, miners, recreationists and the integrity of the land. Over the next two years, the military held several public meetings.

What those meetings illustrated was clear. There was no free land. It was already valued by different groups for different reasons (and in many cases, competing reasons). In both cases, a broad group of tribal leaders, environmentalists, ranchers, hunters and miners voiced opposition to the proposed expansions, poised to close off access to federal public land. Both proposals further threatened the integrity of sacred Indigenous land, including burial sites.

And in the case of the Southern Nevada expansion, the Air Force proposal threatened to give the military control over the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the lower 48.

Despite widespread opposition (the Legislature even passed bipartisan resolutions that opposed the expansions), Nevada politicians recognized what appeared to be inevitable: Congress was probably going to give the military something. And if the military was going to get something, the state should get something in return. Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed one alternative to the Navy expansion in 2018. Over the course of the past year, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto floated two compromises — one for the Air Force in December 2019 and one for the Navy this October.

"We had to make the assumption that a big organization like the Navy and the Air Force were going to pull out all the stops,” said Jocelyn Torres, a senior field director for the Conservation Lands Foundation. “And we had to be prepared that they might try to do something or convince senators and House members from other states that they would pass their proposals.”

In an interview last week, Cortez Masto said that she had always supported the status-quo, or no expansion. But she started engaging with groups on a compromise after she “was hearing that the Air Force, as well as the Navy, were making their rounds amongst all of my colleagues in both the House and the Senate to try to do a larger package and expand their footprint.”

Cortez Masto said the compromise legislation could serve as a “good marker” if the military proposes expansions in the future. And it is likely the military will be back with new proposals. 

“It's a semi-victory because you know they’re going to keep pushing it,” said Greg Anderson Sr., Vice Chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, which would be affected by the Air Force plan.

Congress stated as much in language that accompanied the defense authorization. In an explanatory statement, Congress directed the military to work with tribes, state officials and the Nevada delegation to come up with a “mutually-agreed upon expansion” of the two bases. In the statement, Congress said is “essential for the Nation’s tactical aviation readiness” and training.

On Wednesday, Zip Upham, a spokesperson for the Fallon base, said the requirements that led the Navy to propose the expansion have not changed. He said “the training need is still there.”

In an email, he said the Navy continues “to work collaboratively with all stakeholders involved in the process, including tribal leadership, local and state officials, other federal partners, miners, ranchers, conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts and the citizens of Nevada.”

The defense authorization, if it is signed into law (another story for a different newsletter), would also create committees at both bases to facilitate dialogue between the military and local, state and tribal governments. That could set the stage for discussions about a future expansion.

Still, any expansion is likely to face resistance from a range of Nevadans who believe that the military is already using an appropriate amount of public land. The Air Force’s range already occupies about 2.9 million acres. The Navy’s range occupies about 234,000 acres. And most compromise proposals, as with the one proposed in October, have also faced pushback. 

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

A historic appointment: New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, an enrolled tribal member of the Laguna Pueblo, is President-elect Joe Biden’s top candidate to run the Department of Interior, Reuters reported on Tuesday. Haaland’s appointment would mark the first time an Indigenous person has led the agency, which oversees the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (making it a decisionmaker in how about 67 percent of Nevada’s land — and almost all of rural Nevada — is protected/developed). 

The West, Nevada being no exception, is riddled with instances where the federal government in general, and the Interior Department in particular, has failed to prioritize the interests of tribes or even consult with them on making decisions that affect their land, water and culture. With the potential for an Interior Secretary who knows the rights of tribal governments and the history of their communities, Native American communities are hoping that all could begin to change. 

For weeks, tribal leaders from across the country have advocated for Haaland, who has a track record of working across the aisle and has fought to prioritize the interests of Tribes during her time in Congress. In November, the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada sent a letter of support for nominating Haaland. This week, I spoke to several leaders about what her appointment would signify for Indian Country and how it could reshape the culture of Interior’s bureaucracy:

  • “For one, it would be her breaking the glass ceiling once again. She’s one of the first Indigenous women to be voted into Congress,” said Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. “It’d be someone who understands our frustration, how Indian Country works and someone who is willing to go to bat and help Indian Country.” 
  • “I think you need someone who not only understands the importance [of Interior] but lives that importance. For someone like Deb Haaland, I think there's some excitement in the air from Indigenous populations across the country because we need representation across all spaces,” said Brian Melendez, chair of the Nevada Statewide Native American Caucus. “Having an Indigenous representative who can convey the importance of honoring tribal sovereignty and self-determination — that is what is missing and has been missing for a long time in American government.”
  • “We recognize that it's long overdue, and I'm happy to hear that she's a possibility for that position,” said Anthony Sampson, Sr., Chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. “I think she can connect us better with the federal government as a tribal liaison and look at what we can do and what our needs are."
  • “We have to have somebody — a spokesperson,” said Greg Anderson, Vice Chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes. “We’re left out of a lot of things.”

The uranium plume, transparency and oversight: The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is soliciting comments on a proposal to privatize about 2,000 acres of public land at the Anaconda Copper Mine, where legacy mining practices led to massive uranium contamination in an aquifer used for agriculture, homes and the Yerington Paiute Tribe. An effort to privatize the land would leave one less regulator overseeing the cleanup, led by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection. The agency has faced criticism for shelving an EPA-accepted model of the contamination and approving one that was far more favorable to the company responsible for the cleanup. A BLM review questioned whether the new model relied on “good science.” 

The important context: A land transfer raises concerns about the transparency and oversight of the cleanup — and whether the voices of Native American tribes will be heard in the process. In October, a spokesperson for Cortez Masto said the senator was engaging at the state level and “continues to have concerns with the proposal to convey contaminated federal land to a private entity without the appropriate transparency and oversight.” Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office has not responded to requests about his administration’s position on the land transfer or the decision to significantly cut the company’s responsibility for the pollution. More from my story in October. 

Drought conditions across Nevada and the Colorado River Basin: This year was marked by significant warm and dry conditions across the West. From a climate scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies: “Compared to late 2019 and early 2020, when there was very little drought in the continental United States, this is quite an extreme single-year event that developed rapidly over the course of 2020. But if you look over longer time scales, I would argue this is really a continuation of a multi-decadal event that began around 2000. There have been some breaks, but the Southwest has been in more-or-less continuous drought conditions since then.” More on this (a sobering groundwater map) from an important NASA blog post.  

The future of Colorado River collaboration? The Southern Nevada Water Authority is making an initial investment of $6 million in a Southern California water recycling project with the hopes of eventually clearing up more water on the Colorado River as demand increases into the future. The deal was announced in a press release. This is the type of interstate collaboration that is definitely worth watching as the Colorado River is expected to face a drier future in a changing climate. I wrote more about the collaboration after it was discussed at a conference last year. 

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was nominated to serve as energy secretary on Tuesday. There’s Yucca, of course. But the Department of Energy will likely play a key role in solar and geothermal development under a Biden administration, in addition to how research and development funding is spent for new technologies needed to achieve state climate goals.

‘We need water to survive:’ The Arizona Republic’s Ian James published an important series on climate change, water and the Hopi Tribe. The third installment of the series, focused on the tribe’s push for expanded access to water and clean drinking water, was published this week. It is worth spending time with these stories, which touch on issues that resonate across the West. 

Update: This story was corrected on Dec. 18, 2020 to indicate that the public process for commenting on the military's proposed expansions began in 2016. An original version of the headline said that there was a three-year campaign opposing the proposals.

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