Is a wildlife refuge better served as weapons testing zone than an actual refuge for threatened wildlife? The Pentagon asserts that, in the case of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, in southern Nevada, it would be indeed. The US Air Force has recently submitted a proposal to the Department of the Interior to greatly expand the Nevada Test and Training Range, which already shares space with the DNWR, by as much as one million acres. That figure represents two-thirds of the refuge’s size—the largest such refuge in the Lower 48. As of now, the US Fish and Wildlife Service maintains say over how military activities may impact wildlife in the refuge, including desert bighorn sheep, golden eagles, and desert tortoises, among other animals and native plants. If it wants to prevent military action that would disturb that wildlife—in a wildlife refuge, mind you—it can.
But this new proposal by the Air Force would seek to flip that control. The one million acres under the proposal would instead by considered military training and weapons testing grounds primarily, a wilderness refuge only secondarily. As many as 260,000 acres would be included in the weapons testing grounds.
The proposal, now part of a draft bill that will be submitted to Congress as part of the next round of annual defense spending authorization, does not simply grant the military the authority to overrule the USFWS and expand training and testing grounds, it allows the military to eschew environmental impact reviews that had been conducted every 20 years. The military would no longer have to abide by laws that typically govern a wildlife refuge, meaning it could freely mine minerals and sediment for use in construction projects, or whatever else the military saw fit.
Reporters from the Washington Post obtained the proposal for review.
In a statement provided to the Post, Jenny Keatinge, a public lands expert at the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, said the bill would “pull the teeth out of refuge law.”
The Air Force says it needs the area primarily as a buffer zone because it intends to test newer, more powerful weapons on existing testing grounds, which has the potential to disturb wildlife. So, rather than not test the weapons, it will simply remove the wildlife protection. The Air Force also indicates it would only add a few dozen areas to live fire zones.
Review of the bill, which you can read here, does not make clear how the military would keep animals from entering the testing grounds.
The bill may undergo changes before Congress sees it, but as of now, it will be included in a military defense bill that will need to work its way through a contentious House of Representatives.
Local conservationists put out the below video when the plan was first floated by the Air Force last year.
Top Photo: George Andrejko/Arizona Game and Fish Department