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A petroglyph of a bighorn sheep inside the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

In early March, I introduced the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act (SNEDCA) — a bipartisan bill with support from the entire Nevada congressional delegation and the largest conservation bill introduced in Nevada history.

This bill would protect more than 2 million acres of public land for recreation and conservation and take critical steps to diversify our economy and address affordable housing shortages. The majority of the conservation protections in this bill are within Nevada’s 4th Congressional District, including more than 1.3 million acres of Wilderness designations in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of the Las Vegas Valley, and Wilderness designations surrounding the southern boundary of Gold Butte National Monument southeast of Mesquite. 

For years, I have worked to ensure the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most unspoiled landscapes in the nation, remains protected and accessible for the people of Nevada. The bill keeps access open to the refuge from Alamo Road for the rural communities in Lincoln County, and provides enhanced management for the hundreds of species, such as the desert bighorn sheep, who call the refuge home. The bighorn sheep are sacred to the Southern Paiute people, and the region encompassing the refuge remains central to the lives of Tribal communities, including members of the Las Vegas Band of Paiutes and the Moapa Band of Paiutes. The bighorn sheep, or Nah’gah, are considered the protectors of the Nuwuvi people, and together they have shared the sacred lands of the refuge and beyond since time immemorial.   

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge was originally created more than 85 years ago for the protection of the bighorn sheep by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Since then, protections for the sheep and other species have continued to degrade. It is our responsibility to put a stop to the irreversible damage and destruction to this pristine habitat, and traditional homelands of the Southern Paiute people. We must honor the refuge’s original intent and ensure the bighorn sheep and the habitat they depend on remain intact for generations to come. 

That is why I introduced and pushed for an amendment to last year’s National Defense Authorization Act that increased access to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge for Tribal communities and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Congress signed this legislation into law, prompting the creation of a new Memorandum of Understanding for Range Management within the next two years, to be developed by the intergovernmental committee composed of local stakeholders, including affected Tribal Communities. It is also why I have co-sponsored the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act, and why I will continue to fight for enhanced protections for the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.

Ensuring permanent protections for the Desert National Wildlife Refuge is just one step in honoring the Southern Paiute people and their history on the land as well as making amends for past injustices. Almost 150 years ago, the Moapa Band of Paiutes reservation was reduced to a meager 1,000 acres after promises by President Ulysses S. Grant of a 2 million acre reservation. The bill attempts to make some amends by restoring 41,255 acres of the Moapa people’s ancestral lands in an effort to promote and restore Tribal self-governance, economic opportunities and cultural practices on these lands. 

The Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act will ensure that we can properly balance between population growth, economic development and conservation needs in Tribal and non-Tribal communities alike. I’m proud to support this legislation, which safeguards the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and the Nuwuvi’s connection to the landscape while providing sustainable growth opportunities for the Moapa Band of Paiutes and all residents of Southern Nevada.

Rep. Steven Horsford represents Nevada’s 4th Congressional District.

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