Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2017

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Wearers of sandals, crew cuts join forces

Conservationists, Nellis align to fight development

Members of the conservation coterie Protectors of Tule Springs wear matching safari hats and shirts. One drives a Hummer.

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And that’s about all the environmental activists would seem to have in common with the U.S. military: uniforms and large off-roading vehicles.

Except lately the military and environmentalists have often been speaking with one voice. The disparate factions have different motivations to be sure, but they share a desire to protect large tracts of land from development.

For environmentalists, the reasons for land conservation are the usual: endangered species, archaeological gems, watersheds and so on.

For the military, it’s keeping development from getting too close to bases.

But the end goal is the same — thus, the strange bedfellows.

We recently saw a pairing of this sort with the Tule Springs activists and Nellis Air Force Base brass.

The conservation group has been trying to protect ice age fossils that have been discovered in the Upper Las Vegas Wash — an area under vital air space used for training by the Air Force.

Looking for allies, the Protectors of Tule Springs filled Nellis in on their campaign to prevent development in the wash, and the Air Force, recognizing a no-brainer, submitted a letter of support to the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the land. Essentially, development that’s incompatible with the fossils is also incompatible with the base.

This type of strategic alignment with environmental organizations is a fairly new concept for the military — a revelation that led to many forehead-slapping, how-come-we-didn’t-think-of-this-before moments for both sides, Ret. Army Brigadier Gen. Bob Barnes said.

Historically the two have clashed over competing priorities, but they’ve found a common enemy in rapid sprawl. The recent burst of collaboration is leading to a new understanding of each other’s needs and objectives, according to Barnes, the military liaison for The Nature Conservancy.

“They’re never going to agree on everything, but that doesn’t have to stop you from working together on the things you do agree on,” he said.

Environmentalists bring expertise to the table and their initiatives are stronger with military backing — proposals that also benefit national defense are likely to garner a broader range of support.

The cause has been helped by the 2003 Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative, which gave bases the authority to partner with local entities to establish buffer zones around bases. The legislation was part of a recognition that the military needs to be proactive to ward off encroachment.

Nellis and others have long partnered with environmental groups to deal with conservation issues on the base, but only in the past five years or so has the military broadly focused on land outside the fence line.

This has led to the military — in what Barnes said is a somewhat underappreciated effort — reaching out to environmental groups.

The military is also learning that a decline in biodiversity in a wider area can be just as menacing a threat as suburban sprawl. Basically there’s a risk that land immediately around bases will become rare islands of natural habitat, which could ultimately lead to restrictions on their training.

So now the military is starting to go one step further than simply showing support for its newfound environmental friends. Military members are strategically becoming stewards of some plants and animals.

The sage grouse, for example, is in trouble and lives close to many Western bases, including Naval Air Station Fallon. The bird is one reason the base is expanding its encroachment mission to include protecting key ecosystems.

This type of partnership with the Defense Department is expanding to the regional level — there’s a recent one with senior policy leaders in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah — and seem to be the future for conservation.

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