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December 5, 2019

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Presidential hopefuls join the fight against expanding the military’s footprint into a wildlife refuge

Sheep and candidates

Photo illustration

An environmental clash between the U.S. Air Force, conservationists, Native American groups and Nevada politicians has begun to make its way into the national political scene.

A proposed expansion of the Nevada Test and Training Range into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge has drawn criticism from the time it was proposed. Conservationists and state politicians pushed back against what they saw as an encroachment into wildlife habitat and a limiting of public lands that could be enjoyed by Nevadans.

“I think people are realizing this is a big national issue,” said Shaaron Netherton, executive director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness.

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is the largest wildlife refuge outside of Alaska, with more than 1.6 million acres of the Mojave Desert within the designation. Under the expansion proposed by the Air Force, the military would take primary control of more than 300,000 acres currently under the control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It provides an environmental refuge for many species, including desert bighorn sheep and desert tortoise.

Netherton said the expansion would have a large effect on wildlife populations in the area.

“They would basically take the largest refuge in the lower 48 and turn it into an almost exclusively military area, which is crazy,” she said.

Both Nevada politicians and Democratic presidential candidates have weighed in against the expansion, calling for increased consultation with Nevadans and relevant Native American tribes.

Into the national spotlight

The fight over the expansion has spread into the 2020 Democratic primary, with six Democratic candidates taking a public stance against the proposal.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, widely seen as the two most progressive candidates in the race, have both come out against the expansion.

“I oppose military expansion into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge—we have a responsibility to protect these lands from environmental damage, and respect the communities and heritage they represent,” Warren said in a news release. “I believe we need true and meaningful consultation with tribal nations, especially regarding projects that could put important cultural and ecological sites at risk.”

Sanders agreed that the expansion shouldn’t proceed.

“These lands are considered culturally significant and sacred by tribes in Southern Nevada,” Sanders said. “The U.S. Air Force’s proposed expansion … is another example of the federal government breaking solemn promises and disregarding the sovereign rights of Native communities. I stand in solidarity with our Native American brothers and sisters in opposing this failure to protect tribal treaty.”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro have also come out against the expansion.

Castro, in an editorial published in the Las Vegas Sun, said the expansion would trample on the rights of Nevadans and the Native American tribes with historical and cultural links to the land.

“I’m proud to stand with the Moapa Paiute Tribe, the Nevada Legislature and the thousands of Nevadans who have spoken out in opposing the Air Force’s plan to take over part of [the] Desert National Wildlife Refuge,” he wrote. “Nevadans, including the indigenous communities within the state, deserve a seat at the table.”

Billionaire businessman and activist Tom Steyer spoke out against the expansion, calling it “imperative” that Congress listen to Nevadans on the issue.

“It is critical for our government to protect public lands that belong to the American people and refrain from policy decisions that could impact local communities,” Steyer said.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg came out against the expansion in October, promising to appoint a secretary of the Interior who would stop the expansion effort.

Nevada politicians have pushed back on the issue

The expansion also received pushback in the state legislative session this year. Two resolutions were introduced that would urge Congress to deny the expansion.

The Assembly resolution was sponsored by Lesley Cohen, D-Henderson; Sarah Peters, D-Reno; and Howard Watts, D-Las Vegas, while the Senate resolution was primarily sponsored by Democrats Melanie Scheible, David Parks and Chris Brooks of Las Vegas, and Julia Ratti of Sparks.

In introducing the Assembly resolution, Cohen contrasted the beauty of the site with the proposed future development.

“Last January, I was lucky enough to take a tour of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. I was struck by its beauty and in awe of the cultural significance of the area. It has petroglyphs and artifacts everywhere,” she said, according to the minutes of her testimony. “We looked down and there were shards of arrowheads at our feet. From that same area by the petroglyphs, within our vision, we could see the area where the U.S. Air Force has said it wants to build two airstrips that would have near daily C-130 transport plane flights.”

The Assembly version of the resolution passed overwhelmingly in both the state Senate and the Assembly, with only a few no votes.

In Washington, D.C., in early June, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., pushed Robert Wallace, who at the time was the nominee for assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, to include Nevada in the decision-making process around the expansion.

Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., whose district includes the refuge, came out explicitly against the expansion in October.

“I will do everything in my power to preserve this untouched habitat and biodiverse landscape for the people of Nevada,” he declared in a statement announcing his opposition.

Horsford said the military already has significant access to public land in Nevada, and further expansion would cut off Nevadans from access.

“I am honored that our state is so crucial to our country’s national defense; however, the Department of Defense already has nearly 3 million acres in southern Nevada for testing and training—with a portion of more than 800,000 acres of the refuge already closed to public access,” he said. “Despite overwhelming public opposition, the Department of Defense has not reconsidered any portion of its proposal, which would close most of the refuge to public access and threaten Nevada’s state animal—the bighorn sheep. Nevadans deserve continued access to this treasured desert habitat.”

Netherton said the amount of pushback the expansion is getting makes her confident about the future of the opposition.

“I think when Americans speak out strongly, their voice is heard,” she said.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.