The Mojave Desert is one of those extraordinary places that exemplifies the persistence of life. Often viewed as among the most barren, desolate places in the world—where nothing exists but sand and cacti—deserts like this are actually teeming with life. Blooms of wildflowers extend to the horizon. Herds of deer and sheep follow the waters the rainy season brings. The unique life forms found here were seen as so important to the state of Nevada that the second-largest wildlife refuge outside of Alaska was founded to protect them almost a century ago: the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
Established in 1936, the refuge covers 1.6 million acres of the Mojave Desert just north of Las Vegas. The refuge encompasses six different mountain ranges and is part of the cultural heartland of both the Paiute and Shoshone tribes. This beautiful place has remained undisturbed all these years, an unspoiled haven where the rugged beauty and life of the desert can be appreciated. But now, mankind’s relentless expansion has placed the Desert National Wildlife Refuge under threat.
Next year the grounds upon which the Desert National Wildlife Refuge stands could be reclassified for use as a military training area. The 2.9-million-acre Nevada Test and Training Range, located north of the refuge, is already one of the largest military testing and training areas in the country. But the U.S. Air Force has asked Congress to designate areas of public land for military testing and training so their range can be expanded. The bulk of the land requested by the Air Force—about 227,000 acres—lies within the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
For the Air Force, the Nevada range provides crucial real-world training for pilots. The area is sparsely populated and the terrain of the desert resembles that of countries where the United States military has recently engaged in operations. Already able to use more than 800,00 acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the Air Force believes this expansion is necessary due to the longer-range capabilities of its weapons and vehicles. The additional 227,000 acres would allow for proper testing and understanding of the capabilities of new technology. This, in turn, could facilitate shortened military engagements by ensuring early victories in the future.
This new proposition by the Air Force has been met with heavy opposition not only from conservation groups, but from tribal communities as well. The latter consider much of the proposed expansion to encompass historically sacred land. There are more than 40 documented rock carvings and painting sites already in the current Air Force training area. The expansion would bring a massive portion of tribal land—currently receiving additional protection because it still requires cataloging of culturally significant sites—under Air Force control.
While the Air Force is aware of these sites, and states that its testing will not take place in said areas, the concern remains that testing will destroy undocumented sites and potential mistakes in testing may damage already-documented ones. The expansion would also eliminate acres of public access land currently enjoyed by countless recreational users, including hunters. The area is home to the largest population of desert bighorn sheep in the country. These rare sheep have been protected inside the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, but a limited number are hunted by the public with a special permit. With the area being brought under Air Force control, the population of these sheep could be greatly reduced, and the opportunity to hunt them could cease entirely.
The fate of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge is one of immense significance. The governing body of Nevada has been left to choose which is more important to our collective future: the training missions of the Air Force or the critical habitat of the desert? Does prioritizing the military and their needs outweigh our access to public land and the rights of indigenous people? These are difficult questions to answer. Although the general perception of deserts such as this remains that they are little more than a wasteland—places where necessary military testing would be deemed appropriate—the truth of the matter is that it’s a historical, beautiful, and precious resource we should be hesitant to abandon.