Nev. groups slam provision giving Pentagon control of wildlife refuge

By Ariel Wittenberg | 07/09/2015 07:31 AM EDT

Nevada environmentalists and sportsmen are reeling after learning of a provision in the House defense authorization bill that would give the Pentagon primary jurisdiction over 850,000 acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.

Created in 1936 to preserve habitat for the desert bighorn sheep, the refuge is primarily managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Currently, the Department of Defense has secondary jurisdiction over 846,000 acres in the western half of the refuge for use by the Air Force’s Nevada Test, which uses 112,000 acres as a bombing range.

Language in the House version of the authorization bill would "transfer … administrative jurisdiction" of 850,000 acres to the military. Once the land is transferred, the bill would require the DOD to work with the Interior Department to create a resource management plan for the area, as the DOD does at all its military bases.

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The language has alarmed conservation groups, including the Friends of Nevada Wilderness, which recently launched a petition on its website warning that such a transfer could expand Air Force bomb training further into the refuge and asking the Nevada congressional delegation to stop it.

"Please don’t bomb the bighorns," it says.

"This is very disconcerting to everybody," Executive Director Shaaron Netherton said.

Her group has joined 29 others in writing a letter to members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees Tuesday opposing the provision.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who wrote the language in question, said the lawmaker’s intentions were misunderstood.

"There are no plans for military to take over a wildlife range in Nevada," she wrote in an email. "This language simply makes these existing withdrawn public lands permanent for military control until such time as military no longer needs them."

She added that the language is justified because of the military’s proven history as "good stewards effective land managers."

FWS declined to comment on the bill. A DOD official said the Pentagon did not ask for the language in the bill but would not comment further. The Air Force did not respond to requests for comment.

Language regarding the refuge is not included in the Senate version of the massive defense authorization bill. The bills are now in conference committee, where members of the House and Senate will hammer out the differences between the two versions.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has asked that the House language not be included in the final version of the bill, writing a letter to Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). Reid suggested that if the language were adopted, "numerous threatened and endangered species and their habitats would no longer be monitored or protected by the FWS."

"I am not aware of any operational issues that the United States Air Force has experienced as a result of the current management," Reid wrote in June. "We should allow this process to continue by maintaining the Senate language in the final bill, and not try and fix problems that do not exist."

Conservation groups say their alarm is partly rooted in the fact that they only recently realized the Desert National Wildlife Refuge provision existed.

The language is part of a Bishop amendment that also would exempt the military’s use of public lands from regular reviews by the Bureau of Land Management.

When Bishop proposed his amendment during the House Armed Services’ committee markup, only the BLM language was discussed. The Desert Wildlife Refuge never came up in debate, and the amendment passed 36-27 (E&E Daily, April 30).

Desiree Sorenson-Groves, vice president of government affairs for the National Refuge Association, said conservation groups did not know about the language when the bill was being debated on the House floor.

"This is not typically a place where you see something about the refuge system because it’s the defense authorization," she said. "Plus, no one knew that this area was a problem. No one — not the Defense Department, not Bishop — no one consulted any of us."

The 30 groups on the letter to the Armed Services committees were only alerted to the language by a summer intern who was doing a line-item review and found something "that looked kind of like hanky panky," said Friends of Nevada Wilderness’ Netherton.

Now, she said, her organization is hoping it’s not too late to stop the language from being enacted.

"It just really came out of left field," she said. "Bishop isn’t even from Nevada."