For more than a year, organizers have mobilized a group of environmentalists, hunters, tribes, rural interests and off-road enthusiasts to oppose an expansion of the Nevada Test and Training Range by approximately 300,000 acres. Last year, about 200 people attended a meeting in the Aliante Hotel and Casino in North Las Vegas. During a comment period on the Air Force’s environmental analysis, more than 32,000 people submitted statements opposing the plan.
Now the coalition wants the Legislature to do the same.
Lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday afternoon on Senate Joint Resolution 3. The resolution would state the Legislature’s opposition to the Air Force’s proposal to expand its training range, part of which sits in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge about 70 miles outside of Las Vegas.
More than 85 percent of Nevada’s land is managed by the U.S. government, a frequent source of tension for state lawmakers of both parties. Although the majority of that land is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, the military also has a large presence. The Air Force already controls about 2.9 million acres of the Nevada Test and Training Range, a part of yet an even larger footprint in Southern Nevada that includes the Air Force’s bases at Nellis and Creech.
The military has said the expansion is necessary to accommodate training for modern warfare. With changes in technology — jet fighters drop weapons from farther away — and less conventional missions, the Air Force has argued that it needs more space to accurately simulate combat.
“This range is a 1990s range,” James Sample, a civilian Air Force consultant working on the project, told The Nevada Independent in an interview last January. “When we [tested] our older weapons systems, our ranges were short. We dropped our weapons close to the target.”
Their proposal has irked dozens of groups who are concerned it could limit access, disturb cultural sites and disrupt a wildlife refuge established in 1936 to protect bighorn sheep. Groups have rallied around the hashtag “#Don’tBombTheBighorn.” The Air Force said its interest was in the airspace, not expanding bombing exercises. But they have proposed to take over 227,000 acres of the wildlife refuge, disturbing about 24 acres by building two runways and fencing.
Patrick Donnelly, the state director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said such fragmentation was unacceptable. Donnelly, who presented the resolution with Democratic state Sen. Melanie Scheible, said that the “takeover” would harm Nevada’s largest herd of bighorn sheep and cultural sites in some of the most remote country in Nevada and the largest refuge in the lower 48 states.
“It’s highly intact with few roads and few disturbances,” said Donnelly.
Because the land was withdrawn by the federal government in the early 1900s, the refuge has been closed from development, such as mining. Many petroglyphs and popular spots within the refuge, including a dry lake bed and sand dunes, are only accessible by a bumpy unpaved road.
“It makes for a uniquely wild outdoor recreation experience,” he added.
What concerns opponents most is that the military would have primary jurisdiction of the refuge.
That would mean the military, rather than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages federal refuges, would have the primary decision-making authority over the conservation land.
The resolution calls on the Air Force to work on a “compromise alternative.”
According to the text of the resolution, it asks “Congress to work collaboratively with all interested parties to develop a compromise alternative that would both enhance training opportunities for the United States Air Force and continue to provide essential protections for Nevada's wildlife and outdoor recreational experiences for Nevadans and visitors.”
If the resolution passes, it would serve as a subtle push by the state for Nevada’s congressional delegation to take action. The military’s proposed withdrawal must be approved by Congress.
Fawn Douglas, an activist and member of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, read a letter from the tribe, stating its support for the resolution. Douglas said she considered the mountains around the Las Vegas sacred and worried the expansion would further restrict their access. The expansion would encroach on the Sheep Range, prime rugged habitat for bighorn sheep.
“The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe is deeply concerned about these proposed uses of the land,” she said. “As you can appreciate, Western expansion by Europeans has greatly reduced the ability of Southern Paiutes to use the expansive lands they consider their homeland.”
Opposition to the proposal has come from different corners. In addition to testimony from environmental groups, lawmakers heard comments from several hunting groups, including a representative from the board that dictates policy for the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
Tiffany East, who represents hunters on the Board of Wildlife Commissioners, said that the legislative committee for the board was in support of the resolution against the expansion.
“The United States Air Force’s proposed expansion and subsequent activity would likely result in wildlife mortality, including our precious bighorn sheep,” she said, noting that the department has worked with conservationists to provide water and improve habitat for the species.
For some commenters, the proposal was just the echo of a larger sentiment about the presence of the federal government, including the military, across so much of Nevada’s open space. The military is also proposing to expand Naval Air Station Fallon by about 600,000 acres, a plan that has drawn criticism from hikers, miners sportsmen and rockhounds in Northern Nevada.
“They should work in the same airspace and share the lands that they both already have taken from us and not take any more [land],” said Paula Houston, a Lovelock resident, who told lawmakers that her grandfather was Thomas Jefferson Bell, an early Nevada legislator.
One of the flats that the military is proposing to withdraw is named after Bell, she said.
Even though the military conducts similar airspace exercises in Fallon and near Nellis, the military has ruled out the possibility because both ranges are at capacity and fully booked.
Friends of Nevada Wilderness has fought both proposals. Testifying on Tuesday, Jose Witt, the group’s Southern Nevada director, argued for the value of open space as Las Vegas urbanizes.
“The Air Force’s proposal to expand further into the refuge when they already have 2.9 million acres to train on is out of touch,” he said. “Millions of Americans enjoy their public lands to hike, hunt and escape the hustle-and-bustle of our ever-growing city down here in Las Vegas."