Pentagon to lawmakers: Let Interior keep wildlife refuge

By Ariel Wittenberg | 07/13/2015 07:19 AM EDT

The Defense Department is asking lawmakers to strike language in the House defense authorization bill that would give the Air Force sole jurisdiction over almost half of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, according to a Defense Department official.

The Defense Department is asking lawmakers to strike language in the House defense authorization bill that would give the Air Force sole jurisdiction over almost half of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, according to a Defense Department official.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is the current manager of the refuge, while the military has secondary jurisdiction over 850,000 acres in the western half of the preserve that are used by the Air Force.

The House version of the defense authorization bill would change that, transferring primary jurisdiction over the 850,000 acres to the Air Force.


After consulting with the Department of the Interior, the DOD "has asked lawmakers to clarify the intent of the statute to ensure management of the refuge remains as is," the official said Friday.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell also sent a letter Friday to the House and Senate Armed Services committees currently in conference on the defense authorization bills, requesting that they clarify the language.

In her letter, Jewell wrote that the refuge language would have "serious effects" on management, and "would give the Air Force authority to conduct any defense related activity in a majority of the refuge’s 1.6 million acres."

The letter also criticizes a number of other provisions in the House bill, including one that would prevent Interior from listing the greater sage grouse as endangered and others that would delist the lesser prairie chicken and American burrowing beetle (Greenwire, May 15).

Jewell wrote that the provisions "are not necessary, undercut core environmental laws, and do not promote military readiness."

"I hope you will consider the significant and unprecedented harm these provisions would have on the Department and its mission if included in the bill," she wrote.

The agencies follow similar requests made by more than three dozen conservation organizations and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who wrote to Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) in June asking that the refuge language be left out entirely from the conference committee’s final defense authorization bill (E&E Daily, July 9).

At issue is language added to the House bill in an amendment by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) that seeks to exempt military use of public lands from Interior Department reviews that occur every 25 years (E&E Daily, April 30).

But environmentalists say the provision also goes a step further in changes the bill would make to parts of the Military Lands Withdrawal Act of 1999 that pertain to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.

Specifically, the Bishop language would transfer Interior’s current management authority under Sections 3014 to 3028 in the Military Lands Withdrawal Act to the "authorities and responsibilities of the secretary of the Air Force." Section 3014 of the Military Lands Withdrawal Act is what gives Interior primary management of the refuge and directs the agency to protect wildlife, manage predators, and prevent and suppress wildfires, among other duties.

"Currently, even though DOD is using these lands, there is an understanding that Fish and Wildlife Service owns and maintains them," said Bobby McEnaney, senior lands analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This bill literally transfers that over to DOD. DOD becomes the landlord."

DOD had not previously objected to Bishop’s language because officials believed it only would exempt the department from the 25-year review process. Defense officials requested that lawmakers clarify the language after E&E Daily specifically inquired late last week about changes the bill would make to Section 3014 of the Military Lands Withdrawal Act.

DOD officials now believe the issue could be rooted in a drafting error and that the bill could be fixed to only exempt the military from land-use reviews if the defense authorization bill changed the Military Lands Withdrawal Act at the beginning of Section 3016 instead of 3014.

But Julia Bell, a spokeswoman for Bishop, insisted the language does not include a drafting error.

"It is not a typo," she wrote in an email.

Bell also said Bishop does not agree that his language would transfer refuge lands to the Air Force, writing in an email, "All it does is make the military no longer subject to the 25 year renewal process to continue to use withdrawn public lands in the West as military test and training areas."

Asked about DOD’s Friday request for the language to be clarified, Bell said that Bishop, who is also chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, had "strong support" from the Department of the Air Force and officials at Nellis Air Force Base, which currently uses the portions of the refuge in question.

"In fact Chairman Bishop met with the Range Commander at Nellis a few weeks ago and he personally thanked the Chairman for the language," Bell wrote.

The range commander, Col. Thomas Dempsey, was off-post last week and unavailable for comment, according to a Nellis public information officer.

The Air Force did not respond to requests for comment.