Public land:

Nevada desert: Military training ground or wildlife refuge?


In this file photo, a desert bighorn sheep is seen near Lake Mead.

Thu, Feb 15, 2018 (2 a.m.)

3 ways you can get involved

You have until March 8 to submit comments on the land withdrawal in order to have them included in the final legislative environmental impact statement, which will then be sent to Congress. For more information visit or call 702-652-2750.

1. Submit directly to the website —

2. Email comments to [email protected]

3. Send snail-mail comments to Nellis Air Force Base, 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs, 4430 Grissom Ave., Ste. 107, Nellis AFB, NV 89191. Comments must be postmarked by March 8.

Draft reports (available at include sections on socioeconomic impact; air, noise and water quality; contamination and species. The area is home to:

• 320 bird species

• 53 mammal species

• 35 reptile species

• 4 amphibian species

• 500 plant species

A few of the creatures that live on refuge land:

• bighorn sheep

• sage grouse

• northern leopard frog

• red-tailed hawk

• bearpoppy plant

• burrowing owl

• desert tortoise

• loggerhead shrike

• gila monster

The story of the West is one of competing interests, each group gunning for resources that seem vast and infinite but are in fact finite: ranchers versus city slickers; tourists versus locals; environmentalists versus developers; and in this case, the Air Force versus a coalition of interests.

In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a 2.25 million-acre refuge for bighorn sheep and wildlife. Within five years, about a third of that land (846,000 acres) would be ceded to the Department of Defense to build the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) for World War II practice. Today, almost a century later, Southern Nevada is still torn between these contradicting definitions of “protection.”

Which mission is more important? The Air Force’s mission of “Global Vigilance, Global Reach and Global Power” or the Desert National Wildlife Refuge’s mission of “conservation, management … and restoration” of land, water, plants and animals?

Which federal agency has more right to the land? The scales have slowly tipped in the military’s favor. The Desert National Wildlife Refuge has 1.6 million acres while the NTTR has 2.9 million acres. You have until March 8 to share your opinion on what should happen next.

A unique national asset

People tend to think of the desert as a blank slate because it seems empty, but it’s the opposite of a wasteland. “The Mojave is one of the most biodiverse places in world,” says Friends of Nevada Wilderness’ Jose Witt, explaining how mountainous elevation changes create a tapestry of ecosystems. “I don’t see how we value some lands over other lands. Beauty is in eye of beholder. Just because it has no waterfalls doesn’t mean it deserves to be bombed.”

The 300,000 acres of wildlife refuge/potential training range contain sand dunes, slot canyons, pine forests and a striking dry lake bed that could become an airplane runway. The area is popular among outdoorsy types because it offers great potential for hiking, camping, hunting and biking. One favorite trail is Hidden Forest, which leads to a historical cabin in the woods.

Eco tourism has become a boon to Nevada’s small towns. Once reliant on mining, Beatty is reinventing itself as a mountain bike mecca, with the goal of becoming the next Moab, Utah. Now, residents fear the boom could bust if the land is withdrawn.

“Small towns in Nevada are in a state of failure, and we’re trying to change that. But without that public land around us, we don’t have much of a future,” says David Spicer, a Nye County rancher and president of the Oasis Valley conservation and recreation group Storm-OV.

Like the bighorn sheep who need ample habitat to roam, mountain bike trails need lots of seemingly endless land. So does the military. Because of its “size and remoteness,” Nevada is one of the few places where certain air exercises can be done, according to The Air Force calls our desert a “unique national asset … critical to the nation’s defense.”

What’s the land for?

How could the military possibly need more than 2.9 million acres of desert? The short answer: improvements and modernization to the existing range.

To understand the longer answer, you first need to know that Nellis Air Force Base’s primary function is training, which means that the NTTR is used as a giant scrimmage field. But instead of soccer, the “players” are training in “major combat operations” and “irregular warfare.” Practices involve ground troops, air and vehicle operations, hand flares, bomb target testing, smoke grenades and more. High-tech planes, like the F-35, can fly higher and faster, so they need “increased battlespace to properly employ advanced electronics.”

Some of the requested land withdrawal will simply go to creating buffer zones to help stop “public encroachment onto the range,” which has become a safety issue as Southern Nevada’s population grows. Even something as benign as roads and safety fences can negatively affect wildlife by dividing populations and habitats.

Portions of the training range overlap with land managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which poses “significant restriction on Air Force activities,” such as troop movement, developing new emitter and communication sites, and restriction of targets to dry lake beds. If the land switches to Air Force control, conservation will take a backseat.

The military knows it’s not the only entity that values the land. In a statement, the Air Force says it “recognizes that there may be impacts to other stakeholders and will have dialogue with the appropriate Nevada state agencies as well as local counties and cities that may be impacted by the land withdrawal.” Because Congress ultimately decides, the Air Force is in the final stages of completing a legislative environmental impact statement (LEIS). It’s a sprawling report filled with information on every conceivable way that the land, wildlife and people could be affected (which is why they’re seeking public comment). Draft reports (available at include sections on socioeconomic impact; air, noise and water quality; contamination; migratory birds, greater sage grouse, mammals; and rare plants. Reading through the list, you realize just how populated a seemingly empty desert is.

In January, the Air Force hosted a series of public hearings throughout Nevada. The North Las Vegas hearing drew upward of 200 people against the expansion. Speakers included environmentalists, hunting groups, recreationists and Native Americans, whose ancestral lands are in question.

Fawn Douglas, an activist and member of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, attended the hearing and was inspired by the fiery opposition. “It’s important to protect these areas­—just like it is for Gold Butte, Basin & Range and all our natural areas—not just for our people but for everybody to enjoy,” she says.

Moapa Band of Paiutes chairman Greg Anderson is against the expansion. He doesn’t want to lose access to the land, which his people use for medicines, hunting, gathering of herbs and medicines, pine nuts and more.

“It’s almost like what they did to us years ago, how they took us and put us on these reservations,” Anderson says. “I don’t think it’s fair to have to ask permission to go on our ancestral lands. They say they will protect it, but I think they’re lying.”

Less remote every day

When the test range was created, the Las Vegas Valley was a dusty blip, with fewer than 14,000 residents. Today, it’s home to nearly 2 million. As both the city and the training range have grown, they’ve crept toward each other. The Northern half of Clark County actually abuts the NTTR. Friends of Nevada Wilderness’ Jose Witt can see the training range from his North Las Vegas backyard, and he sometimes feels the sonic booms.

“We all support our military,” Witt says. “But how do we strike a balance between being safe and protecting the most pristine areas in Nevada? I don’t think anybody likes giving our land to the military so they can bomb it. It’s a hard case to make.”

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