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Air Force proposal to expand Nellis range met with concern

A pitch for military readiness was met with concerns over wildlife, cultural heritage and public access Thursday, as the Air Force detailed its plans to expand the Nevada Test and Training Range northwest of Las Vegas.

The public scoping meeting at the Aliante hotel-casino in North Las Vegas drew about 125 people, including conservationists, outdoors enthusiasts, government land managers and tribal leaders.

The Air Force wants to add 301,507 acres to its restricted proving ground near Indian Springs that already covers more than 2.9 million acres in Clark, Lincoln and Nye counties.

Roughly 278,000 acres of the range expansion would be carved from Desert National Wildlife Refuge, about half of which is already under military control.

Air Force Col. David Aliva, commander of the range, said the additional land is needed to increase overall training capacity and support more realistic combat exercises for the next generation of military aircraft and equipment. As it is now, Avila said, the range is “a 10-pound sack of flour, and we’re squeezing 15 pounds into it.” Proposal to add public lands to Nevada Test and Training Range (Gabriel Utasi/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

The proposed action also would renew — perhaps indefinitely — the military’s hold on all the land previously withdrawn from public use for the test range under a congressional decree set to expire in 2021.

The Air Force is not seeking any additional land to use as bomb impact areas, but officials want primary jurisdiction 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 Air Force because of regulations governing refuge property and proposed wilderness.

Thursday night’s meeting was meant to give people a chance early in the process to shape the proposal and lessen its impact as much as possible, said Jim Sample, a civilian staff member for the Air Force in Washington, D.C.

“This is all Jello. It’s very, very malleable,” he said of the range plans. “No decisions are made. We’re really looking for all input across the board.

“This is the area we’re looking at. We need to know how people are using it,” Sample said.

Refuge officials have expressed concern about the possible impacts on desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife. They also worry the expansion will cut off access to two of the refuge’s most popular attractions: the rough, unpaved Alamo Road and the Hidden Forest Cabin hiking trail.

Though Sample insists Hidden Forest Cabin and the trail leading to it fall outside the expansion, Christy Smith, project leader for the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex, said she has yet to see a map that reflects that.

Brett Jefferson is president of the Fraternity of the Bighorn Sheep, a nonprofit that supports Nevada’s state animal by developing and maintaining water sources across its range.

He said his group worries about losing access and leaving the bighorn’s fragile fate in the hands of the military.

“I think it’s important for wildlife professionals to take care of wildlife,” Jefferson said.

Eddie Jim, chairman of the Pahrump Paiute Tribe, said he objects to expanding the range because it will cut his people off from even more of their ancestral homeland.

“The federal government has most of the land in Nevada. This is enough,” he said.

This was the fifth and final public scoping meeting as the Air Force prepares an environmental review of its proposal.

The four previous meetings, held in rural towns surrounding the test and training range, drew a combined total of 96 people.

Additional opportunities for public input are expected in early 2018, after the Air Force releases a draft version of the legislative environmental impact statement on the range renewal and expansion.

Congress will have the final say over what happens to the range in vote expected sometime before November 2021.

The Air Force is accepting public input through Dec. 10 on what to include in its impact statement.

Comments can be submitted via a website, by email at 99ABW.PAOutreach@us.af.mil or by mail: Nellis Air Force Base, 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs, 4430 Grissom Ave., Ste. 107, Nellis AFB, NV 89191.

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

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