New Bill Would Gut Desert National Wildlife Refuge

The draft National Defense Authorization Act for 2016 (NDAA) is loaded with plenty of problematic riders, including attempts to lift endangered species protection for threatened sea otters in California, de-list the endangered lesser-prairie chicken, and prevent the listing of the sage grouse.  Of particular relevance in the Mojave Desert, the version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives includes language that would offer jurisdiction of over half of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge to the U.S. Air Force for weapons testing.  Handing over jurisdiction of this important desert habitat is unnecessary because the military already has access to over several million acres of training and weapons testing ranges throughout the southwestern United States.

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is one of the nation's largest, at about1.6 million acres.  However, over half of the Refuge is closed to the public and managed jointly by the Fish and Wildlife Service and Secretary of the Air Force as part of the Nevada Test and Training Range (see map above).  Within this restricted area of the Refuge, the U.S. Air Force  has primary jurisdiction of nearly 112,000 acres of bombing impact areas (blue areas in the map above), but the Fish and Wildlife Service retains secondary jurisdiction over these areas.   The draft NDAA language under consideration in Washington would offer the entirety of this restricted area - over 800,000 acres - to the Air Force, removing Fish and Wildlife Service jurisdiction altogether, and substantially reducing any consideration for wildlife in how the land is managed.

The photos below show how the 112,000 acres of existing bomb impact areas within the Refuge boundary are affected by military activities.  If more land is handed over to military jurisdiction, you can expect more desert habitat to be destroyed. 

Bomb craters are visible in this Google Earth image, covering nearly one square mile of desert in Three Lakes Valley.  This is part of 112,000 acres of existing bomb impact areas that fall within the Refuge boundary.  The draft NDAA bill would permit the Air Force to conduct this type of activity on much more land if transferred from the Fish and Wildlife Service to the Air Force.

The red line added to this Google Earth image traces a string of bomb craters over 1.25 miles long, ending in a large disturbed area on the left hand side of the photo. This disturbance is in the Indian Springs Valley.

This is a Google Earth image of what appears to be a mock base constructed for training or target practice purposes in Three Lakes Valley, within a designated bomb impact area of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
There are multiple live weapons testing and training areas throughout the southwestern United States already available to the military, in addition to the 112,000 acres of bomb impact areas in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.  Giving the Air Force several hundred thousand more acres seems unnecessary, and Congress should instead ensure that the military efficiently uses the spaces already available for testing and training.
  • In Nevada, the military already has access to the entire Nevada Test and Training Range, a total over over 2.9 million acres.  It's not clear if this 2.9 million acres also includes over 1,300 square miles of the heavily impacted Nevada Test Site, where nuclear weapons were tested.

    The square-shaped clearing alone is an area of bulldozed desert encompassing
    over 1.8 square miles at Edwards Air Force Base, California.  This is prime Mojave Ground Squirrel habitat.
The NDAA does not make clear why the Department of Defense needs to add several hundred thousand more acres to these test and training ranges (the list above is only a sampling of the live ordnance training areas on U.S. territory).  I could not find Department of Defense testimony indicating that this extra land is necessary, but the Department of Interior testified in 2014 against a similar attempt to gut the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. 

The House and Senate are now debating the final language of the NDAA before it is sent to the President, who has threatened to veto the bill if it ignores his Administration's national security funding requests.   It is appalling that Congress is opposed to designating new national monuments to protect our natural heritage, but it is willing to needlessly designate so much of America's beautiful landscapes as bombing ranges.

If you live in Nevada, sign this petition to urge your elected officials to oppose this unnecessary rider in the NDAA.

Severe cratering from nuclear weapon testing during the middle of the last century at the Nevada Test Site, just west of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
An early spring shower brings rain to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge from Bristlecone Media on Vimeo.


  1. Thank's for sharing this news and encouraging people to sign the petition. I first fell in love with the Desert National Wildlife Refuge when I produced a short film for the refuge. I will sign the petition and share this news. Here is the film:

    1. Thanks Shaun for bringing up this important desert preservation issue and Ryan for producing such a beautifully filmed movie, this place definitely is on my list of must visits.

  2. This has me confused. Does this concern the jointly managed area, which is Desert National Wildlife Refuge designated land that is ALREADY within the Nevada Test and Training Range? Or is this about the Desert National Wildlife Refuge that is OUTSIDE the NTTR, and currently public land?

  3. Hi Rider, the legislation would impact lands currently managed primarily by the Fish and Wildlife Service. DOD is allowed to carry out limited training in that portion of the Refuge, but lands are managed primarily for wildlife conservation. This would not be the case of the lands are turned over to DOD.


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