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Cortez Masto's public lands giveaway greenwash

Cortez Masto's public lands giveaway greenwash
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Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoFavorites emerge as Latino leaders press Biden to appoint 5 Hispanics to Cabinet Senate Democrats reelect Schumer as leader by acclamation  McConnell, Graham warn GOP Senate majority on the line in Georgia MORE (D-Nev.) just proposed one of the largest public land giveaways in recent American history — nearly 1 million acres of public lands in central Nevada. The damage if this legislation passes would be significant. 

Cortez Masto’s bill would turn over an area bigger than Yosemite National Park to the military and private developers. Still, she’s trying to greenwash it by including provisions purported to benefit the environment.

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This is an example of the worst kind of “quid pro quo” conservation, where new conservation areas are designated only when paired with unacceptably destructive proposals. The price paid for conservation should not be the loss of biologically rich ecosystems, wildlife habitat and wild places.

Unfortunately, the senator waited until the last possible minute to propose this legislation, which was developed behind closed doors with a select group of special interests. She is now trying to ram it through before anyone notices.

Much of the land Cortez Masto is proposing for military takeover and sell-off is the ancestral land of the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe. They had repeatedly expressed their opposition to the expansion, including Oct. 15, when Tribal Chairman Len George penned an open letter to Cortez Masto. Last year the American Congress of American Indians passed a resolution opposing the expansion.

The Walker River Paiute Tribe has reached an agreement with the senator and the navy and supports the legislation. Clearly, there is no consensus in the tribal community.

The sprawling bill would allow the U.S. Navy to expand three enormous bombing ranges in central Nevada onto more than 382,000 acres of adjacent public lands. It would extend partial military control over another 320,000 acres. The Fallon Naval Air Station bombing range expansion would also allow supersonic aircraft to fly much lower to the ground, at 11,000 feet.

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The expansion and low-flying bombers would be devastating for the beautiful Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, a vast wetland ecosystem designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve. Stillwater is a vital stopover on the Pacific flyway, where hundreds of thousands of wading birds may visit at once. It’s also Nevada’s largest bald eagle winter habitat. One of the bombing ranges would be right next to the refuge if this expansion is allowed.

The bill also requires the Interior Department to authorize the Dixie Valley Water Project, which would pump billions of gallons of groundwater every year from a remote desert basin and pipe it dozens of miles to Fallon, Nev., for agricultural, industrial or residential use.

Dixie Valley is home to sensitive aquatic habitats, including Dixie Meadows, the Dixie Valley toad's home, which has been petitioned for protection under the Endangered Species Act. A similar pipeline proposal was withdrawn earlier this year after more than a decade of litigation.

As if that wasn’t enough, Cortez Masto’s bill would give away 48,000 acres to rural Nevada counties for development and earmark an unknown amount of additional public land for sale. Up to 50,000 acres could be sold off in Churchill County, but there’s no limit in nearby Pershing County. Given that there are more than 800,000 acres of eligible public lands in Pershing County, and the open-ended nature of this provision, this could be the mother of all public lands sell-offs. 

Nevadans don’t want this massive military land grab and they’ve made their voices heard. In 2019 the Nevada Legislature voted overwhelmingly to oppose the proposed public lands takeover. 

Cortez Masto is generally strong on environmental issues. She has used her position on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee to hold federal officials accountable for their destructive actions and policies. She was instrumental in stopping oil and gas leasing in the Ruby Mountains.

But we must be willing to acknowledge when our friends have gone astray, and this legislation is disastrous for people, wildlife and public lands.

Patrick Donnelly is the Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity.