Air Force plan to expand Nevada training range raises concerns

There were no bighorn sheep in attendance, but their interests were well represented at a public hearing Tuesday night on the Air Force’s plans to expand its vast training range and close off more of Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas.

More than 200 people turned out for the hearing at Aliante Hotel in North Las Vegas, and many expressed concern or outright opposition to the proposed expansion.

The Air Force wants to add 301,507 acres to the Nevada Test and Training Range, which already covers more than 2.9 million acres in Clark, Lincoln and Nye counties. Roughly 278,000 acres of the expansion would be carved from Desert National Wildlife Refuge, about half of which is already under military control.

During his public comment, Brett Jefferson, chairman of the Wild Sheep Foundation, noted that the wildlife refuge was founded in 1936 — before the bombing range existed — solely to protect and enhance bighorn sheep habitat. Now the Air Force wants to expand its range into “some of the most critical sheep habitat in the world,” Jefferson said.

Longtime local conservationist Terri Robertson grew emotional as she talked about the people who lobbied for the creation of the refuge some 82 years ago, only to see it slowly eaten away for military use.

“This request is a travesty that must be stopped,” Robertson said of the expansion. “Not now, not in another 82 years, not ever.”

Air Force officials say the additional land is needed to increase the range’s overall training capacity and support more realistic combat exercises for the next generation of military aircraft and enemy countermeasures.

The Air Force is not seeking any additional land to use as bomb impact areas, but officials want primary control over the 846,000-acre southern portion of the range they share with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The change would allow the military “ready access” to conduct exercises on the land, which is already off-limits to the public but of limited use to the military because of regulations governing refuge property and proposed wilderness.

The action also would extend — perhaps indefinitely — the military’s hold on all the land previously withdrawn from public use for the test range under a congressional decree last renewed in 1999.

Conservationists, hunters and tribal groups have all come out against the expansion, which they say will endanger wildlife, cut off public access to public land and hurt rural recreation economies.

Marge Kolar from the independent nonprofit National Wildlife Refuge Association said a simple Google Earth comparison between the southern part of the training range and the northern part, where the military already has “ready access,” shows the sort of ground disturbance that could eventually occur if the Air Force is allowed to take full control of refuge land and use it for training.

About 50 people signed up to speak at Tuesday night’s input session.

Similar hearings held last week in the Lincoln County communities of Caliente and Alamo drew about 40 people.

Two more hearings will be held Wednesday night in Beatty and Thursday night in Tonopah.

The Air Force will accept public comment through March 8 on its draft environmental impact statement for the proposed range expansion. Information on the document and how to comment on it is available online at www.nttrleis.com.

Input deemed substantive will be included and addressed in the final environmental impact statement slated for release in September.

Congress, which has the final say on the expansion, could take up the matter as early as next year, following a review by the Interior Department.

The military needs lawmakers to act before 2021, when the current land withdrawal for the test and training range is set to expire.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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