Nevada Democrats aim to block Nellis bombing range expansion

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LAS VEGAS — Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said he is joining the state’s Democratic congressional delegation in opposing the military’s effort to extend the boundaries of the Nevada Test and Training Range into a national wildlife refuge.

The vast U.S. Air Force bombing range is one of two military training areas at the Nellis Air Force Base complex in Nevada and used by the Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis.

Sisolak, a Democrat, joined Reps. Dina Titus, Steven Horsford and Susie Lee Thursday in opposing the plan. Other opponents include the Moapa Band of Paiutes and the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe. The Nevada Assembly is already on record as opposing the move.

The lawmakers want the House Rules Committee to strike an amendment from a national defense spending bill that would enable the expansion of Nellis Air Force Base for aerial combat and ground warfare training.

The boundary move was not included in the Senate’s version of the defense bill, which would leave the use of adjoining lands at the Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas unchanged. Differences between the two bills will have to be worked out in conference.

That version approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee last month also was missing a proposal backed by the Defense Department to dramatically increase the size of a bombing range at the Naval Air Station Fallon.

F/A-18A Hornets taxi aboard Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada on Dec. 16, 2016. (Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph R. Vincent/Navy)

The Fallon range was again left out of the version approved last week by the House Armed Services Committee but the Nellis expansion was reinserted over the objections of Nevada Democrats.

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The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that Titus, Horsford and Lee expressed surprise at an amendment added to the House bill by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

It would give the Air Force access to an additional 1,312 square miles of wildlife refuge for expanded bombing and training.

The existing Nevada Test and Training Range is used for warfare training by aircraft from Nellis. It covers more than 4,500 square miles and includes the remote, once-secret Area 51 military base.

In a letter, Sisolak said the House amendment “clearly undermines Nevada’s ability to effectively manage wildlife and natural resources” within the state’s borders.

A U.S. Air Force B1-B bomber drops live bombs at the Nevada Test and Training Range in southern Nevada. (Joe Cavaretta/AP)

The wildlife refuge covers some 2,500 square miles of Mojave Desert — an area the size of the state of Delaware. It is the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 United States and is home to desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions and 320 types of bird species across six mountain ranges.

It also encompasses ancestral tribal lands and recreation areas, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto told the Review-Journal she expects the current operating agreement between Nellis, the training range and the wildlife refuge will remain until all sides reach an agreement about future use.

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