The Battle for Nevada’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

An amendment in the 2021 National Defense Authorization act would have ceded precious wildlife refuge to the Air Force - until a Nevada congressional delegation put a stop to it. The fight is likely not over.

There is a battle for 800,000 acres of refuge land in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. The Trump administration wants to give those acres to the military for its use. Those who care about the environment want it to remain a refuge.

An amendment passed on July 1, 2020, by the House Armed Services put the 800,000 acres under control of the U.S. Air Force. The amendment, known as Section 2845 of the legislation, was part of the House Armed Services consideration of the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). That amendment would give the military control of almost 70 percent of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and would strip the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of their role in managing the Refuge.

No consultation with Nevada

No consultation with the Nevada congressional delegation occurred before the introduction of the amendment. Representatives Dina Titus, Steven Horsford, and Susie Lee sent a letter to the Chairs of the House Armed Services and Natural Resources Committees. “This amendment would directly threaten over 840,000 acres of unique plant and animal habitats in Nevada’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge,” wrote Reps. Titus, Horsford, and Lee.

The Nevada state legislature also condemned the amendment by passing an assembly joint resolution opposing it. 

“The members of the 80th Session of the Nevada Legislature hereby urge Congress to reject any proposal by the United States Air Force to expand its use of land or exercise of jurisdiction within the Desert National Wildlife Refuge beyond that which it currently possesses and to limit any proposal to extend the Air Force’s authority over the Nevada Test and Training Range to not more than 20 years,” the joint resolution stated.

New amendment saves the Refuge

After much opposition by the Nevada delegation, another amendment introduced by Rep. Steven Horsford eliminated the other amendment. The Horsford amendment, which keeps the Fish and Wildlife Service in control of the refuge, passed unanimously on July 20.

Rep. Horsford called the bill with the new amendment a “victory for Nevada,” and described the Refuge as a “vital sanctuary for the Nevada state animal, the Bighorn sheep, and other precious wildlife.” He added that he is “pleased to see the inclusion of Nevada’s interests in this legislation and I will continue to uplift the voices of our state.”

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is a national treasure

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states. There are hundreds of species that depend on the Refuge for survival, ranging from bighorn sheep to the desert tortoise. Comprising 1.6 million acres, the Refuge contains six mountain ranges, seven life zones, and elevations ranging from 2,500 feet to 9,912 feet. President Franklin Roosevelt originally protected the Refuge in 1936 as the Desert Game Range. In the 1970s, the Fish and Wildlife Service formally recommended 1.2 million acres for wilderness designation and it has been largely managed as such ever since. The exception is two areas within the Air Force’s Nellis Test and Training Range.

The Sierra Club describes the refuge as the “largest swath of land, mostly untouched by modern humans, in the lower 48.” Largely unsullied by humans, very little roads, mining, or oil and gas development exist within the Refuge. It is also an archaeological treasure. Native Americans lived in the area for 12,000 years and left behind rock shelters, rock art, ancient artifacts, and agave roasting pits.

What you can do

While the Refuge is safe for now, it is clear the U.S. Air Force has designs on it. There is something you can do to make your voice heard. Sign the petition by Friends of the Nevada Wilderness and tell Congress to protect the Refuge.

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