Updated July 9, 2020 - 3:51 pm
WASHINGTON — Surprised by an unexpected amendment that would give Air Force use of 840,000 acres of Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas, the Nevada congressional delegation warned Democratic leaders to reject the measure.
The delegation received the backing Thursday of Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, who fired off a letter urging the House Rules Committee to strike the language, citing opposition by groups including the Moapa Band of Paiutes and the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe.
The land-use provision is not included in the Senate defense bill, which would leave the use of adjoining lands at the Wildlife Refuge near the Nevada Test and Training Range unchanged for fiscal year 2021, which begins Oct. 1.
But a subcommittee last week allowed Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, to insert language that would give the Air Force access to thousands of acreage of wildlife refuge for expanded bombing and training exercises.
The Bishop amendment clearly caught Nevada lawmakers by surprise. It was passed by a Democratic majority on a voice vote.
“It’s appalling that Democrats on the House Armed Services committee would betray the people of Nevada by giving away our beloved Desert National Wildlife Refuge to the Air Force,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Nevadans from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, veterans and civilians, hunters and wildlife watchers, have all come together to oppose this proposal,” he added.
“It’s a slap in the face for this amendment to go through,” Donnelly fumed.
Out of order
Reps. Dina Titus, Steven Horsford and Susie Lee, all Nevada Democrats, are pushing Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., and Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., to rule the Bishop amendment out of order and eliminate it before it comes before it comes up for future votes.
“The decision to allow this amendment to be included in this legislation, without consulting the members of Nevada’s congressional delegation, is particularly concerning,” the three Nevada Democrats wrote to the chairmen.
“The effort to block the Department of Interior from continuing its over 90-year protection and management of the Desert National Wildlife Interior has occurred with little to no discussion with affected stakeholders,” they wrote.
Concerns from neighboring communities, tribal leaders and other stakeholders were taken under consideration when the Senate Armed Services dismissed the Air Force request last month.
The Senate is still considering the full defense bill, with final passage expected once lawmakers return from their July Fourth district work period.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., said she expects that the final result will be a resumption of the status quo operating agreement in Southern Nevada between Nellis Air Force Base, the training range and the wildlife refuge until everyone comes to a consensus on future use.
Looking for consensus
A compromise bill filed by Cortez Masto remains on the books and could be called up if differences remain between the House and Senate versions of the legislation.
“All the stakeholders have to be a part of it, and listen to it, so that we can find a balance,” she told the Review-Journal.
Nevada House Democrats want the Bishop amendment eliminated before the legislation goes to a conference committee to resolve differences.
“If this matter is not addressed prior to the legislation coming to the House floor, we will file an amendment to strike these provisions.” Titus, Horsford and Lee told the committee chairmen.
Sisolak in his letter told the House that the “plain language of the amendment clearly undermines Nevada’s ability to effectively manage wildlife and natural resources within our state borders.”
The wildlife refuge is the largest in the lower 48 United States, with 1.6 million acres of Mojave Desert, home to desert bighorn sheep and six major mountain ranges.
It includes ancestral tribal lands, and provides recreation for visitors, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The refuge is home to mountain lions and 320 types of bird species.