Las Vegas Sun

September 23, 2021

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Congress acts to shield Nevada public lands from ‘military seizure’

Desert National Wildlife Refuge

Steve Marcus

Wildflowers are shown along Pine Nut Road in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge May 27, 2019. The Refuge, north of Las Vegas, is the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states encompassing 1.6 million acres.

In a win for environmental activists, Congress blocked a request this week from the Department of Defense to appropriate over 1.7 million acres of public land in Nevada in the annual federal defense bill.

Two proposals, one from the U.S. Air Force and another from the U.S. Navy, would have jointly claimed the land as an expansion of military sites — the Nevada Test and Training Range and Naval Air Station Fallon. The block is the latest in a long fight from activists and tribes that reached the statehouse, where resolutions condemning the grabs passed both chambers in 2019.

The proposal would have allowed the Air Force to expand the Nevada Test and Training Range into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, a 1.6 million acre refuge that is the largest outside of Alaska.

“We were told we had to cut a deal or risk losing everything,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “But this coalition showed steely resolve and it paid off. Our public lands have been saved from military seizure.”

Under the defense bill, both military sites will receive a status quo extension, meaning they’ll be able to operate as they have been for the next 25 years.

Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto had brought forward what was meant to be compromise legislation that would allow testing grounds at Naval Air Station Fallon to be expanded but also put in place some other environmental restrictions. She released a statement touting the decision made Thursday in extending the status quo, and said it was “vital” that both the military and local economies be supported while preserving public lands and tribal sites.

“I’m thankful for the sustained engagement of the stakeholders across the state and will continue to put Nevadans first,” Cortez Masto said in a statement. “Any future decisions regarding our military bases and public lands must be inclusive of the needs of a diverse, comprehensive group of local stakeholders.”

The issue is likely not dead, however. Members of the conference committee said that finding a way to expand the Fallon Range Training Complex in a way that is “responsive to the needs of all stakeholders” is essential.

They also encouraged the Department of Defense to “continue to work with the committees of jurisdiction, the Nevada congressional delegation, state and tribal stakeholders to secure a mutually-agreed upon expansion.”

“We know the military will be back and the coalition will be ready to protect our public lands,” Donnelly said. “When this campaign began we said ‘not one acre.’ We meant it.”