July 25, 2016
Rebecca Bullis

Dangerous Congressional rider would upend management of one of our largest wildlife refuges.

The word refuge usually means something safe and secure. Few would associate the term with a military training ground.

At approximately 1.6 million acres, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada is the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states. President Franklin D. Roosevelt first established the area as the Desert Game Range in 1936 to protect desert bighorn sheep. Now a refuge, it provides habitat for hundreds of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, as well as rare plant species. This treasured landscape also lies within the ancestral homeland of Native Americans, preserving cultural relics and tribal history.

For all the wildlife that call the Desert Refuge home, it also supports another unique desert dweller: the United States Air Force.

In 1940, during the early stages of World War II, the Air Force began using a portion of the refuge as an aerial bombing and gunnery range. Military activities continue on the refuge today, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Air Force sharing responsibilities for managing approximately 846,000 acres in the western region of the refuge. This amounts to more than half the entire refuge, and includes large swaths of ecologically valuable Great Basin and Mojave Desert habitat.

While military use of a refuge is not ideal, the existing management partnership between the FWS and the Air Force helps ensure that wildlife and other public values are considered when the military plans training exercises in Desert Refuge.

Unfortunately, a few in Congress want to give full control of the western half of the refuge to the Air Force, shutting out FWS from its duties to manage wildlife and their habitat on the refuge. This spring, they attached a legislative rider to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to do the deed, even though the Air Force never requested any such thing. The rider would waive environmental safeguards for half of the refuge – hundreds of thousands of acres. It would also prevent FWS from acting to protect sensitive species or habitat on those lands, and discourage Congress from designating any of the area as wilderness. Handing over management to the Air Force is both unnecessary and sets a harmful precedent that could impact national wildlife refuges across the country.

Defenders is fighting to remove the Desert Refuge rider from the NDAA. Both the House and the Senate have already passed versions of the legislation, and the Senate’s does not include the damaging rider. We are working to ensure that Congress strips out the attack on this cherished wildlife refuge when they reconcile the two NDAA bills this summer.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is the only network of federal lands established specifically for wildlife conservation. It is critical that, even where other uses are authorized, Congress uphold the primary purpose of the system, including rejecting the Desert Refuge rider.

This blog is part of an ongoing series on our National Wildlife Refuge System and the vital role that refuges play in protecting species and providing crucial habitat for wildlife. Check in regularly to hear from our field teams, policy experts and staff on Capitol Hill about new developments and continuing threats to these wild places and what you can do to help.


Rebecca Bullis

Rebecca Bullis

Communications Associate
Rebecca Bullis manages press outreach for our California and Southwest field offices, covering issues ranging from Mexican gray wolf and jaguar recovery to border wall, renewable energy and California water policy.

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