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Compromise proposed on military use of Desert National Wildlife Refuge

Updated December 20, 2019 - 6:22 pm

WASHINGTON — Nevada’s congressional delegation has united behind compromise legislation that would allow the Air Force access to portions of a wildlife refuge north of Las Vegas for training but conserve lands for native species and provide access to the public.

A bill offered by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and backed by the congressional delegation, would create a forum for all stakeholders to take part in the management of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge while allowing training to continue.

Cortez Masto announced the plan Friday in a news release that included statements from all four House members from Nevada and both senators.

The Air Force had proposed taking 1.1 million acres of the refuge for training and bombing that is conducted at the nearby Nevada Test and Training Range. That proposal drew opposition from communities, tribal leaders and environmentalists.

“Nevadans have made clear that they do not support the expansion proposal offered by the United States Air Force. And I stand with them,” Cortez Masto said in the release. “Our legislation addresses the concerns of our community while also ensuring the Air Force has the resources and support it needs to keep our country safe.”

Cortez Masto’s legislation would provide access, cultural use and give communities more say with management of the lands, but it would allow Air Force training on the refuge.

The state’s delegation said the bill strikes a balance while giving local communities, tribal leaders, recreational and environmental enthusiasts more of a voice with management of the refuge.

Although environmental groups praised the compromise bill offered by Cortez Masto, some said the bill does not go far enough.

“We appreciate Sen. Cortez Masto’s commitment to conservation, but this legislation would not resolve current management conflicts on the refuge and could exacerbate problems for wildlife,” said Mark Salvo, of Defenders of Wildlife.

Helen O’Shea, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the bill needs more safeguards to protect species in the refuge.

“With a little more work, this bill could signal the path forward in protecting the iconic desert landscapes and species in this important cornerstone of our national refuge system,” O’Shea said.

The Air Force proposed expanding the Nevada Test and Training Range into the adjacent Desert National Wildlife Refuge to accommodate more sophisticated equipment and fighter jets.

In its proposal, the military stated that pilot training for fifth-generation aircraft, like the F-35 fighter jets at Nellis Air Force Base, requires increased battle space to properly employ advanced electronics.

Environmentalists, though, said expansion of training into the refuge would sharply curtail habitat for bighorn sheep and curb activities like bird watching, hiking, hunting and tribal use of ancestral lands.

Congress must renew the Nevada Test and Training Range boundaries in the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1.

The Air Force proposal and the compromise legislation is expected to be included in authorization bills considered by the House and Senate in the next session of Congress, which begins early next year.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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