Protected public lands support US defense mission

To prevent budget shortages and base closures from affecting military installations and training facilities in the United States, we need to be vigilant and creative in how we defend them from incompatible uses outside their boundaries.

Arizona proudly hosts several military installations that are vital to national security, and contribute thousands of jobs and approximately $9 billion to our state's economy. These installations and the communities that benefit include Luke Air Force Base (AFB) near greater Phoenix, Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, the Western Army Aviation National Guard Training Site (WAATS) in Marana, and Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) in Yuma; both Luke AFB and MCAS are now home to the newest Department of Defense (DoD) fighter, the F-35 Lightening II.

Arizona’s bases—along with other DoD bases in southern California and U.S. Navy assets that train from coastal waters off California—share a reliance on the Barry M. Goldwater Range (BMGR). For approximately 270 days a year, pilots and other military personnel train rigorously at BMGR, where 2.7 million acres of open Sonoran Desert unfold under clear and sunny skies. BMGR’s continued viability is a national security imperative for the U.S. and its allies, providing exceptional training lands and air space for military personnel from as far away as Europe, Taiwan, and the Republic of Singapore.

The BMGR is surrounded by millions of acres of federal public land—managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service and other agencies—that provide valuable habitat for the wildlife that migrate through the Goldwater Range. In April last year, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to accomplish multiple objectives: the Arizona Sonoran Desert Heritage Act would protect approximately 900,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands west and south of the White Tank Mountains, including 650 square miles of lands under training routes used by pilots from Luke, Davis-Monthan, WAATS and MCAS Yuma. This locally-driven legislation is supported by elected officials, businesses and developers, faith communities, farmers, solar companies, conservation groups, and by advocacy organizations representing service men and women and their families at Luke AFB and throughout Arizona.

Preserving these lands prevents the BMGR from becoming a haven of last resort for threatened and endangered Sonoran Desert wildlife. If we can protect plants and animals adequately off base, military time and resources can be spent fulfilling the critical training and operations that ensure premier national security standards held by the United States Department of Defense.  According to a report issued last year, the legislation could result in the permanent protection of 80% of Maricopa County federal lands under military training routes (MTRs)—more than 650 square miles of additional protective designations—nearly doubling the amount that is protected today.

The DoD has flexibility from the Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative (REPI) to buy conservation easements on private property where those purchases will assist a military installation. Thanks to adoption of Prop 119, the Arizona State Land Department now has exchange authority for State Trust land parcels where those may benefit military installations as well. On non-DoD federal lands, our mission viability can be further enhanced by protecting open space, providing habitat for native species, and minimizing the risk of land disposal for commercial developments that can alter the training landscape.

Designations such as wilderness—provided by Congress under the Wilderness Act of 1964—are protective overlays that allow public use and enjoyment of federal lands and safeguard essential migration corridors for animals moving across this vast desert. Such designations provide multiple benefits for DoD activities on and around the Barry M. Goldwater Range, including flight training: by preventing disposal of BLM lands for development, they can help minimize the risk of urban encroachment on the Range. By ensuring undisturbed habitat for wildlife outside Range boundaries, protective designations thwart costly mitigation measures and ensure the fiscal fortitude of the BMGR and the bases that train there.

In an uncertain budget future, Congress should act collaboratively and resourcefully in its efforts to support the Department of Defense’s goals by considering the Arizona Sonoran Desert Heritage Act and similar landscape-level legislation as useful, cost-effective tools for protecting mission viability of the BMGR and the bases it supports nationwide.

Uken retired in 2012 after more than 12 years as director of the U.S. Air Force side of the Barry M. Goldwater Range. He also served as an adviser to the Arizona Governor's Military Advisory Committee for the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC).

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