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Cortez Masto proposes conservation compromise on Air Force expansion in Mojave Desert

As Congress weighs annual defense bill, a new proposal would allow for more sophisticated Air Force training while ensuring environmental protections.
Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum
A petroglyph of a bighord sheep

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) will introduce legislation Wednesday that would expand military use and conservation protections at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge (DNWR), offering up a compromise that could balance both Air Force and environmentalist priorities in one of the few bills expected to pass in a dysfunctional Congress this year.

Cortez Masto’s legislation lays out a path for the Air Force’s requested expansion of its technology and footprint in southeastern Nevada’s DNWR, the largest wildlife refuge in the continental United States and a critical habitat for desert bighorn sheep. Much of its land overlaps with the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), a part of Nellis Air Force Base used for target practice and aerial combat training.

The Air Force is seeking to install 15 threat emitters that replicate the emissions various adversaries’ air defense systems create, allowing pilots to practice responding to more realistic threats. The threat emitter pads would be installed in the area of the DNWR that the Air Force jointly manages with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, adding new construction within the refuge.

Cortez Masto’s bill would permit the Air Force to expand its footprint in the Mojave Desert via pads for the threat emitters, but also would designate 736,000 acres of the wildlife refuge as wilderness, thereby providing a permanent protection from any development for that area. 

A map of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto's (D-NV) proposed legislation. (Office of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto)

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) introduced an amendment to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) allowing for the construction of sites for emitters. The amendment — and the bill — passed in July. 

Each chamber’s armed service committee is in charge of passing a National Defense Authorization Act, the bill that sets the budget and priorities for the military. It’s the rare example of consistent congressional function — the bill has passed on a bipartisan basis every year for more than 60 years.

Although the House version included authorization for threat emitter site construction in the test range because of Amodei’s last-minute amendment, the Senate version does not. Members of both chambers will reconcile the two bills in the NDAA Conference Committee, which must pass by the end of the year, meaning committee members will need to decide whether the emitters stay in the final bill.

In introducing her own legislation, Cortez Masto is publicly proposing a compromise between military and conservation interests for the land — the kind long seen in Nevada’s history of federal land policy, including the expansion of the Fallon Range Training Complex in last year’s NDAA.

“It was important for me, as I've always done, to find that balance with legislation that's going to protect our public lands while also making sure that [the] Air Force has the training facilities they need for our national security,” Cortez Masto said in an interview. 

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), who is co-sponsoring the bill, said she had also been working with stakeholders to strike that balance "and I will continue working to see that we include these provisions in this year’s annual defense bill.”

Wilderness designations — which occur in land already public — allow for pre-existing uses and outdoor recreation on the land, but prohibit new commercial uses, the creation of roads and the use of motorized and mechanical vehicles.

The wilderness proposal predates Tuesday’s bill — it has been kicked around since at least 2021, when the Clark County lands bill was introduced. Shaaron Netherton, the executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, said the designation would protect close to half of the refuge’s acreage for bighorn sheep and for activities including camping, hiking, conservation, hunting, tribal cultural value and wildlife management. 

“Once it's wilderness, it would be much harder for the Air Force to take over more of that,” she said. “And so for us, it's a clear distinction.” 

The Air Force filed an environmental impact statement in 2018 expressing broader interest in using the land it jointly manages within the wildlife refuge — a request Netherton believes could come as soon as next year. 

By securing continued public access through a wilderness designation this year, the conservation community would be safeguarding a portion of the refuge in advance, including keeping Alamo Road, the road that leads from the visitor center at Corn Creek into the refuge, open.

“The Air Force is coming back now after that, taking a small bite, and we're fairly certain they will ask for a bigger bite next year or the year after,” Netherton said. “And so what we want to do is to keep that public side of the refuge public.”

The Nevada Test and Training Range (red) and the Desert National Wildlife Refuge (blue) overlap. Cortez Masto's proposal would protect the portion of the DNWR that is not jointly managed with the Air Force as wilderness. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Map)

The bill also includes two other pieces of legislation Cortez Masto has championed that have already passed through the Energy & Natural Resources Committee. The first is a bill to streamline permitting for new businesses at North Las Vegas’ Apex Industrial Park. The second is a provision to allow the Southern Nevada Water Authority to run a pipeline through the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area to provide water infrastructure redundancy for the City of Henderson in exchange for an expansion of the conservation area.

The inclusion of her other priorities represents a Harry Reid-esque maneuver to attach provisions to a bill such as the NDAA that has a strong chance of passage — particularly this year, when, given dysfunction in the House, the NDAA might be the “only train leaving the station,” Netherton said.

“I'm going to look for any opportunity to pass legislation that I passed out of committee, to get it done,” Cortez Masto said.

Last year, the inclusion of the Fallon provisions in the NDAA represented a yearslong effort from the Nevada delegation to first strike a compromise between the military’s needs, conservationists’ desire to protect public lands and tribal interests, and then ensure the legislation made it into the final bill. 

With just over two months to pass a new NDAA, the timeline on this NTTR-DNWR compromise is much shorter.

“I think the lateness of the Air Force's proposal kind of took folks a little bit by surprise,” Netherton said.


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