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Veterans, anti-war activists protest proposed Air Force base expansion in Nevada

Nellis AFB (U.S. Air Force/WikiCommons)

Las Vegas-area veterans joined anti-war activists outside Nellis Air Force Base for a protest against the proposed expansion of the Nevada Test and Training Range.

The approximately 25 demonstrators on Thursday were the latest to voice opposition to the U.S. Air Force’s plan to expand the 2.9-million acre range, located in rural Clark, Lincoln and Nye counties.

The Air Force hopes to extend the range by 301,507 acres, the vast majority of which would be in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. The range already overlaps with about half of the 1.6 million-acre refuge, the largest wildlife refuge in the contiguous United States.

Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge encompasses six mountain ranges and is home to endangered desert bighorn sheep, among other key plants and animals, according to its website. It also includes sites sacred to Native American tribes, notably the Moapa Band of Paiutes.

The range expansion would allow the Air Force to enhance training and testing activities conducted on site and keep up with the latest technologies in weapons and electronic warfare. The current size of the range no longer supports “relevant threat environments,” the Air Force stated in an October 2018 environmental impact statement.

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Attending Thursday’s protest, Navy veteran Jeoff Carlson said the expansion would cause undue environmental harm and questioned whether it was necessary for military activities conducted at the range. At its current size, the range is the largest contiguous air and ground space used for military operations “in the free world,” according to the range website.

“(It’s) not helping our men and women come home. It’s not helping them be better trained,” Carlson said.

The protest was led by Veterans for Peace, a national organization that aims to bring attention to the costs of war, its website states. Other groups represented at Thursday’s demonstration included Code Pink, an international, women-led organization that opposes U.S. wars and militarism, the regional environmental organization Friends of Nevada Wilderness, and the interfaith, anti-nuclear Nevada Desert Experience.

Some of the individuals present at the protest also took part in a series of annual anti-war and anti-drone demonstrations at Creech Air Force Base throughout the week.

U.S. Army veteran Garett Reppenhagen, executive director of Veterans for Peace, said he was encouraged to protest the proposed range expansion into the wildlife refuge because of his love for public lands.

“Stealing more American public lands is not the way, I think. It’s not what I fought for,” said Reppenhagen, a Colorado native who served in Iraq from 2001 to 2005. “I came back home and, really, it was my access to public lands that saved my life.”

Local veteran Gabrielle D’Ayr similarly highlighted the importance of public lands for veterans as they reacclimate to civilian life. She also raised questions about the necessity of expanding the training range.

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“I’m not really sure that questions are being answered in a transparent manner from the military about why this is needed,” D’Ayr said.

A spokesperson from Nellis Air Force Base reiterated that the Air Force is no longer able to simulate real-world conditions at the range because of its current boundaries. The individual also stressed that the Air Force plans to establish an Interagency Executive Committee, consisting of land-use stakeholders, to ensure that it complies with environmental and other requirements.

“Each year, the Air Force spends millions of dollars to manage the natural and cultural resources contained within the (range) and works with federal and state governmental agencies, Native American tribes and local neighbors to ensure our evolving missions and communities grow in compatible, mutually beneficial ways,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

The Air Force first proposed the expansion in 2016. The proposal now lies with Congress, which has the authority to approve some, all or none of the proposed expansion boundaries, the spokesperson said.

Opposition to the proposal has been growing in Nevada, with numerous environmental organizations, Native American tribes and state leaders having expressed concerns with the proposal. The Nevada Legislature approved a resolution this year urging Congress to reject any proposals to expand the range; only three lawmakers voted against the resolution. Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker also recently came out against the proposal.

Bringing veterans into the cause will hopefully demonstrate to Congress that concern about the proposal is widespread, Reppenhagen said.

“We need to show that there’s more public resistance against the expansion, especially with military veterans, because there’s kind of a trope of environmentalists fighting against the military. And I think we need to have U.S. military veterans saying it’s not needed,” he said.

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© 2019 the Las Vegas Sun