NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. --
With a span of 2.9 million acres, the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) is protected land, and because of this its daily happenings are left up to the imagination. Where there is little information, people sometimes can create their own. This vast landscape of hills and valleys, most of it having been untouched by human life for more than 50 years, supports wildlife, holds historical relics and provides the U.S. military with essential space for testing and training.
Due to the longevity and complexity of the NTTR mission, over time the popular misconception that has developed is that it was a once thriving historical landmark, which, was slowly destroyed by military use. This rumor has been debunked by law enforcement and environmental agencies.
“There’s a popular misconception when it comes to the NTTR that the military is destroying it because they drop bombs for training,” said Anna Johnson, 99th Civil Engineering Squadron (CES), natural resource program manager. “That narrative is incorrect. The NTTR wouldn’t have the species numbers and diversity that it currently has if it was just a wasteland destroyed by the military and its practices.”
The NTTR and the 99th CES work closely with local, state, and federal environmental agencies to sustain the range while maintaining military capabilities. They employ teams of biologists, anthropologists and natural resource managers to ensure the impact on the range remains as minimally invasive as possible.
“We look at the environmental consequences of everything we do, not just for the exercises and the war gaming, but also for testing and training,” said Roger Christensen, range environmental administrator at the NTTR. “We liaise between everyone, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Bureau of Land Management and the more than 17 Native American tribes associated with the range. We welcome input so we can weigh the impact of our actions against the environment.”
Following federal laws that protect natural and cultural resources, 99th CES cultural managers, like Kish LaPierre, manage the NTTR and consult with tribal affiliates to evaluate which areas should be protected.
“There are parts of the NTTR that have been untouched by humans for decades and that’s amazing,” said LaPierre. “This pristine land is like a living museum because of the way it’s withdrawn and preserved. We have over 4,000 known cultural sites, and we’ve only inventoried about 250,000 of the three million acres on the NTTR.”
To examine the potential effects a project might have on the area, environmental surveys or assessments in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act are completed for every proposed project at the range.
“Every time the NTTR plans a project, they contact us and we work with archeological firms to do a study,” said LaPierre. “We consult the tribes and the State Historic Preservation Office, and if we find something significant, they move the project.”
Similarly, to determine potential impacts, recovery missions for left over ordnance are also carefully planned, with a strong focus on maintaining the footprint the military has already developed on the range.
“My first real mission on this range was to recover two downed A-10s surrounded by a lot of Joshua trees,” said Master Sgt. Jeremy Cunningham, operations support superintendent at the NTTR. “There were environmental concerns with the surrounding area, so instead of cutting a road and bringing trucks out there to recover the aircraft, we contracted helicopter support and slung loaded everything to be air lifted out.”
In addition to setting up the 3,700 target elements across the range and Leech Lake, Cunningham works with Maj. Don “Mick” Martin, chief of operations support at the NTTR, managing the contractors who perform all required maintenance, such as cleaning and repair work of everything on the range.
“We remove all hazards that might cause undue harm to the environment,” said Martin. “We always verify that the contractor cleaned the area, and that they did so following our environmental compliance standards.”
Between projects with the NTTR, 99th CES biologists and anthropologists continue to survey the range. They work with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), consistently conducting wildlife, botanical and wetland surveys.
“Our team of biologists and botanists have been steadily collecting data since 2010 to help us form a picture of the NTTR,” said Johnson. “We want to know where our species and rare plants are located to mitigate the impact on them.”
The 99th CES natural resource managers understand the importance of a partnership as part of stewardship of the NTTR land.
In 2017, while updating Nellis’ Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan (planning documents that outline how military installations will manage natural resources) they consulted multiple local, state, and federal environmental agencies, as well as the local tribes, for participation in crafting their management plan.
“It is required that we have U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state wildlife agency sign this document,” said Johnson. “This can take a long time or get interrupted, because if the agencies don’t agree, they will not sign it. We got ours signed in three weeks. That is a testament to how well we worked with the agencies and how satisfied they were with what we put into the plan.”
Recently, the Nevada Department of Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service directors signed a Sheep Management Plan that the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, USGS, Nevada Department of Wildlife and U.S. Air Force have been collaborating on for the last year to complete.
The NTTR is incredibly diverse and complex. Its numerous interests add a great deal of oversight to ensure that the USAF is acting as good stewards of the land and honest brokers in all of their operations.
“We welcome the fact that there is oversight in everything we do,” said Larry “Slider” Prince, chief of the projects branch at the NTTR. “Sustaining the land, the animals and the capabilities that the military utilizes on the range are all of co-equal importance to us. We understand that if we don’t take care of the land, we won’t be able to use it.”