Desert National Wildlife Refuge (Desert NWR), the largest national wildlife refuge in the contiguous United States, spans vast tracts of land in Nevada. Adjacent to the Nevada Nuclear Test Site and overlapping the Nellis Air Force Range, the refuge and surrounding preserves form the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex, home to several rare and endangered species such as the Devils Hole pupfish. Though established to preserve Nevada’s natural landscape, various interest groups in the region are in continual conflict over how to use Desert NWR, some sharing its preservationist goals and some not.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service created Desert NWR in 1936 primarily to protect desert bighorn sheep. In doing so, the government also recognized southern Nevada’s high biodiversity and varied desert environments, from the oasis of Ash Meadows to the landscape of the Great Basin. However, not all shared this appreciation. When military officials searched for a place to test nuclear weapons in the wake of World War II, they chose Nevada’s “wasteland” as the site that would generate the least collateral damage. The Nuclear Test Site settled in Nye County, Nevada in 1951, coming to rest on land that the Shoshone people had called home for millennia.
The Western Shoshone Nation quickly challenged the military’s appropriation, pointing to the terms set in the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. Though the US government had acknowledged Shoshone sovereignty in the region, they still asserted that their nuclear agendas took precedent. In addition to the Western Shoshone’s rights to the land, the environmental impact of nuclear testing quickly became a pressing issue due to how far wind carried radioactive remnants of bomb tests. The Test Site terminated above-ground testing in the 1990s and fully closed in 2010. In the late 2010s and early 2020s, however, the federal government continued to encroach on the refuge’s land. Conflicts about the nearby Air Force range have proposed both expanding and withdrawing its reaches, with the debate still ongoing. The presidency of Donald Trump even reopened discussions on the proposed nuclear waste site at nearby Yucca Mountain.
The prevalent and continued debate over Nevada desert land shares fundamental elements with many land rights conversations in the West. Paiute and Shoshone presence within the Refuge confines is impossible to ignore, especially with petroglyphs and sacred sites scattered across the landscape. Military presence also touches upon another sensitive topic in Western states—the overwhelming amount of federally-owned land. Much of the strong Nevadan opposition to test site expansion stems from resentment towards the government, as many feel that the state government should maintain more dominion over local land. Yet the state itself continues to violate the dominion of those who have used the land far longer than any Nevada citizen. For a so-called wasteland, the deserts of southern Nevada draw much attention.