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A close air support training mission in 2011 at the Nevada Test and Training Range. (U.S. Air Force)

Gov. Steve Sisolak is requesting congressional leaders axe a last-minute provision, slipped into a defense authorization bill last week, that would give the Air Force the final say over how more than 800,000 acres of protected land are managed at a wildlife refuge outside of Las Vegas. 

In a letter shared with The Nevada Independent, Sisolak told the leaders of two congressional committees that a provision introduced by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop “clearly undermines Nevada’s ability to effectively manage wildlife and natural resources within our state borders.”

Without consulting the Nevada delegation, Bishop introduced an amendment last week giving the Air Force authority to resolve management decisions and create new ground disturbances at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, established in the 1930s to protect bighorn sheep.

The Air Force currently uses the wildlife refuge, the largest in the contiguous United States, as part of the Nevada Test and Training Range. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency focused on habitat conservation, retains primary jurisdiction over activities at the refuge. 

That would change under Bishop’s amendment. The Air Force, not the wildlife agency, would have the final authority to make decisions about balancing conservation, access and training.

Conservation groups and members of Nevada’s congressional delegation offered sharp criticism for the amendment. They said they were working to ensure that the provision was not included in a final bill. Rep. Steve Horsford said it would mark the “biggest loss of refuge in U.S. history.” 

On Wednesday, Sisolak joined their effort to remove Bishop’s amendment.

Sisolak said he stood “with the Nevada congressional delegation, the citizens of Nevada, and the sovereign tribal governments in Nevada in opposing any expansion of [the Air Force base] that would undermine the integrity of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and usurp the ability of Nevada to responsibly manage the natural resources and wildlife within our great state.”

Sisolak addressed the letter to Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Adam Smith, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee. 

Monica Matoush, a House Armed Services Committee spokesperson said the committee was working to "ensure that the Department of the Interior continues to have a lead role in managing the refuge."

The Interior Department oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Chairman Smith is aware of the Nevada delegation’s concerns regarding the Desert Wildlife refuge, and will continue to work with stakeholders and the House Natural Resource Committee during the NDAA process to identify or make any technical edits to clarify the intent of the amendment and ensure that the Department of the Interior continues to have a lead role in managing the refuge,” Matoush wrote in an email.

Bishop introduced the amendment in the House Armed Services Committee, but he serves as the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, which waived its jurisdiction over the amendment. It is unclear who gave Bishop the language included in the amendment.

But Nevada’s congressional members were not notified of its drafting, despite the fact that the amendment, offered by a Utah representative, dealt solely with land inside Nevada’s borders.

Sisolak wrote that he hoped “this unfortunate oversight was unintentional given Nevada’s vocal and broad-based opposition to the current proposal by the U.S. Air Force to expand Nellis Air Force Base and take over management of the refuge from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Both committees are led by Democrats. Bishop is a Republican who has often faced criticism for pushing an agenda that has looked to transfer public land and gut the Endangered Species Act. 

In Nevada, disputes between local governments, state officials and federal politicians over land management are not uncommon. Over 85 percent of land within the state’s borders is controlled by the federal government for varied uses: military training, energy development, conservation.

The Nevada Test and Training Range is part of the larger Nellis Air Force Base complex. For years, the Air Force has looked to expand the 2.9 million-acre training range by about 300,000 acres and gain more jurisdictional authority over the wildlife refuge. Because the training range operates on federal public land, Congress sets the rules over what the military is allowed to do.

From the beginning the Air Force’s proposed plan was met with widespread opposition within the state. Last year, the Legislature passed a nearly unanimous bipartisan resolution asking Congress to reject the Air Force’s proposed plan and seek a “compromise alternative.”

The Moapa Band of Paiutes and the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, in addition to the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, also expressed strong opposition to the Air Force’s original proposal. 

“Meanwhile,” Sisolak wrote, “the U.S. Air Force and the leadership at Nellis [Air Force Base] have failed to engage with my administration, tribal governments, and Nevada stakeholders in any meaningful way."

This story was updated at 4:50 p.m. on July 9, 2020 with a statement from a House Armed Services Committee spokesperson.

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