Rethinking National Security: The Threat to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge

Growing up in Nevada, I became accustomed to sprawling sagebrush-filled mountains and snow-dusted deserts. My family lives in the northern, southern and eastern parts of the Great Basin. Long drives for birthdays and graduations implanted a comforting landscape in my mind- pristine, natural, untouched. For many Nevadans, indigenous, fifth and first generations alike, despite our environment’s perceived nothingness, it is the core of our existence. That’s why proposals like the Pentagon’s to extend the Nevada Test and Training Range into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge pose a serious human-environmental problem.

The refuge is the largest in the contiguous United States. Desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, and rare plant species roam and root its soil. Indigenous communities have cared for and thrived from it for centuries, and for so, so fewer, governmental agencies have swept through our state under the guise of national security and economic prosperity.

The land is not empty. Maybe you drive through on your way to Salt Lake City or Phoenix or Los Angeles, and you believe there is nothing out here. In the 1940s, perhaps the Atomic Energy Commission believed this to be true when they decided to establish the Nevada Nuclear Test Site north of Las Vegas. In the 1980s, perhaps President Ronald Reagan believed this when he approved the exploration of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. In 2002, perhaps President George W. Bush believed this when he approved HJR 87 to start depositing nuclear waste there. Now, perhaps President Donald Trump believes this as he pushes for drilling in the Ruby Mountains, unauthorized shipments of plutonium to Yucca Mountain, and a loss of nearly two-thirds of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. But, for all their beliefs in a wasteland, the flaw lies not with the simple perception of a desert as lifeless; rather the assumption that it is disconnected from the ecological health of the rest of the world.

Our impacts on the Earth are not acting in a vacuum. We realized this when residents in Southern Utah experienced increased cases of leukemia, brain tumors, cancer, and other horrible diseases as a result of nuclear fallout from the tests happening in Nevada from the 1950s to 1980s. We realized carbon emissions from transportation and factories do not just dirty our air and waterways in their path, but heat up the northern and southern poles, some of the most remote areas of the world far from human activity.

Proponents of expansion into the Desert National Wildlife Refuge argue for the land in order to use it for training purposes and as a bombing range to better prepare for future national security threats. If the proposal were to be declined, it is argued that opponents do not respect nor support the service of our military and their efforts to protect us. However, opposition to expansion is not opposition to the U.S. Air Force activities. Opposition to expansion only asks us to rethink what the threat to national security really is.

If the threat is other people in other countries of the world, then proponents have won. Replacing ignorance with fear breeds a culture of complacency towards an ‘any means necessary’ approach.

But, if the threat is culture of complacency itself, then what are we doing sitting around? Scientists agree the Earth’s climate is changing at an alarming rate due to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Do we still support the military if we allow the dominant security narrative to be threats from other nations, even though we know the real imminent threat is environmental degradation of this Earth?

There is a constant pull between those who believe in a land of resources and a land of nature, but this is a false binary pitting the most vulnerable populations against each other. The desert is a place of resilience. Bomb it, mine it, build through it, but years from now when me and you are not here anymore, it will remain.

Protecting the Desert National Wildlife Refuge is about protecting the species that thrive there for generations to come. Even more so though, it is about protecting ourselves from the continued mindless, destructive activities that are seriously damaging our collective health and longevity.

Driving through Nevada now, I don’t just stare out the window in wonder. I stare out in hope that it will still be there for my children, for their children, for the bighorn sheep and their children, for the desert tortoises and their children, for the plants and cacti and their offspring, for the Earth, for equality, for justice, for good.

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University of Nevada, Reno Grad. Political Science and International Affairs. Writing on geography, politics, and gender.

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