January 22, 2021

The Politicus

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Native people and green activists defeat the GOP effort to seize refuge land for a bombing range.

“When this campaign began, we said ‘not one acre.’ We meant it.” Patrick Donnelly, Center for Biological Diversity

In early July of 2020, GOP  Utah Congressional Representative Rob Bishop introduced an amendment to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to turn over 50 percent of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge's southern half to the military. The House Armed Services Committee shortly passed the amendment. Eight hundred thousand acres of critical habitat for desert species, including the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep, could be bombed into oblivion by the Pentagon. 

Bishop was able to sneak the refuge transfer into the FY 2021 Defense Act despite the state of Nevada's explicit recommendation that the transfer not take place, per Joan Meyers of The Spectrum.  Bishop accomplished this partly by keeping the Nevada US delegation in the dark.

Due to activists vigilance, the move became exposed, and Democratic Representatives introduced an amendment in the defense bill by Steven Horsford (NV-04), Dina Titus (NV-01), and Susie Lee (NV-03), and the house committee voted to keep the land within the US Department of National Fish and Wildlife Service. 

On December 3rd, the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act officially stripped the Defense Department from transferring our public land to exploitation.

LAS VEGAS— Congress today moved to deny the Defense Department’s request to seize more than 1.7 million acres of public land in Nevada for bombing ranges, following a five-year grassroots campaign by public lands advocates to stop the land grab.

The Air Force’s proposal to seize 1.1 million acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the lower 48 states, drew widespread condemnation from across Nevada and the nation. A similar Navy proposal to seize 600,000 acres of land in central Nevada was criticized by Nevada conservationists and indigenous tribes.

Both proposals were blocked in today’s final conference committee report for the annual defense policy bill, the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

“This is a monumental victory for public lands, wildlife and the people of Nevada,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which helped lead the coalition opposing the proposed land grabs. “We were told we had to cut a deal or risk losing everything. But this coalition showed steely resolve and it paid off. Our public lands have been saved from military seizure.”

The Horsford amendment seeks to increase access to the refuge, parts of which are already shared with the Air Force base, for Fish and Wildlife Service activities and to expand the definition of affected Tribes to ensure that all groups with historical ties to the land have a say in future management decisions regarding areas of cultural significance within the refuge. This would be in addition to protecting the land from military control
The Desert National Wildlife refuge (in green) lies just north of Las Vegas and west of St. George, Utah. Its large size is dwarfed by the neighboring Nellis air force base (in grey). Purple shows air force land within the refuge.

More than 32,000 people submitted comments to the Air Force opposing the Desert refuge takeover. In 2019 the Nevada state legislature passed near-unanimous resolutions opposing both land grabs, led by Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen, Sen. Melanie Scheible, Assemblyman Howard Watts III and Assemblywoman Sarah Peters.

“We want to recognize the leadership of Nevada Assembly members Cohen, Watts and Peters, state Sen. Scheible and U.S. Rep. Horsford,” said Donnelly. “These elected officials went above and beyond the call of duty, responded to their constituents’ demands and took a bold stand for our public lands. We owe them a debt of gratitude.”

Tribal leadership was central to the campaign to save Nevada’s public lands, which are the ancestral heritage of Nevada’s tribal nations. The Moapa Band of Paiutes, Las Vegas Band of Paiutes, Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, the Intertribal Council of Nevada and the National Congress of American Indians passed resolutions opposing the land seizures and made numerous trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress.

“Nevada’s Native American nations played a crucial role in securing this victory,” said Donnelly. “Their determined advocacy for their ancestral lands was decisive in achieving this outcome.”

National wildlife protection should be there for infinity instead of the current system where hostile republicans can steal the land for their corporate overloads. I think Biden will be all over this. 

Biodiversity loss will be as cataclysmic as climate change. The struggle continues.