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The robbing of a wildlife refuge in Nevada

The robbing of a wildlife refuge in Nevada
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Anyone who loves America’s public lands was robbed last week and they probably didn’t even know it.

While the rest of the country was distracted, the Democratic-majority House Armed Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithCongress set for chaotic year-end sprint Trump rails against Twitter in late night tweets The pandemic and a 'rainy day fund' for American charity MORE (D-Wash.), approved its version of the 2021 defense bill. As chairman, Smith greenlighted an amendment that effectively dismantled Nevada’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states.

It’s hard to understate what a blow this is not just for that refuge but for our public lands around the country. At 1.6 million acres, the Desert Refuge is home to iconic bighorn sheep, threatened desert tortoises, and dozens of species of resident and migratory birds.

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Next door, the U.S. Air Force’s Nevada Test and Testing Range provide the military 2.9 million acres for training. But that apparently isn’t enough. Despite overwhelming opposition from Nevadans, tribal nations and environmental organizations, with no debate or fanfare, Smith quietly sanctioned the end of the Desert Refuge as we know it by giving control of more than 800,000 acres to the military.

Imagine the vast Desert Refuge, a sanctuary for wildlife, being slowly turned into an industrial warfare training ground. Desert bighorn running in terror from the deafening roar of military war games. Birds no longer able to find a place to rest. Tortoises suddenly left to hunker in place lest they come under fire. Suddenly what was supposed to be a place of refuge for Nevada’s cherished wildlife is now a militarized zone.

The Air Force’s proposal has provoked a strong and near-unanimous reaction of opposition from Nevadans. The state legislature, under the leadership of Nevada state Senator Melanie Scheible and Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen, passed a resolution opposed to the expansion with the remarkable bipartisan vote of 58-3. The Moapa Band of Paiute Indians and Las Vegas Band of Paiute Indians have both passed tribal resolutions as opposed to the expansion. Over 32,000 people commented in opposition to the Air Force’s plan during a comment period.

As a result of this advocacy, Nevada’s congressional delegation introduced legislation last winter denying all but a small fraction of the Air Force’s request, while protecting almost all the rest of the refuge as wilderness. Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoHispanic leaders coalesce in support of Lujan Grisham as HHS secretary Favorites emerge as Latino leaders press Biden to appoint 5 Hispanics to Cabinet Senate Democrats reelect Schumer as leader by acclamation  MORE (D-Nev.) and Rep. Steven HorsfordSteven Alexander HorsfordNevada Democrat Steven Horsford wins reelection The robbing of a wildlife refuge in Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford wins Democratic House primary in Nevada MORE (D-Nev.) have made clear their opposition to this expansion, reflecting the near-unanimous will of their constituents. We hope that their work to push back on this proposal will yield positive results and they will overturn Rep. Smith’s underhanded ploy.

But there is larger damage that’s been done here.

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America’s public lands, more than 600 million acres in all, are held in trust by the government under the promise that they’ll be protected for future generations of people as well for wildlife, rivers and clean air and water. These are national forests, deserts, refuges and parks. Special places that we’ve agreed, as a society, are important enough to protect and deserve far-sighted management that keeps them intact. 

Once we start peeling them off in cynical moves of political horse-trading, we are venturing down a very dangerous road. If others in Congress begin to follow Smith’s misguided path, we’re apt to see the slow dismantling of other wildlife refuges, other forest lands, other parks, other waterways. Soon our protected public lands are no longer that — and the corrosive effects become profound and long-lasting.

There is a particular danger here for our network of national wildlife refuges. The refuge system was established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect America’s rich fish and wildlife heritage. In 568 refuges in all 50 states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages 95 million acres of our country for the benefit of our wildlife.

In Smith’s home state of Washington, there are 24 national wildlife refuges and I don’t suspect he’d like to see Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge on the beautiful Columbia River turned into a target range for the Navy or Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia turned into a training ground for the Army. 

These are real places providing real benefits for wildlife, people and the environment.

Rep. Smith basically gave away more than 800,000 acres in Nevada. He is not only deeply out of touch with the values of the American people’s support of our public lands, but it is deeply concerning about what else he will do on behalf of the military. 

He should act immediately to reverse course and restore protections for the Desert Refuge. Anything less puts all our wildlife refuges at risk, in Nevada and around our nation. 

Patrick Donnelly is the Nevada political director of the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund.