Tucson — The U.S. Army is considering a large expansion of Yuma Proving Ground firing range, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The action would remove as many as 500,000 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land from public access.
The Army is considering whether to propose converting between 100,000 and 500,000 acres of BLM public lands in Yuma, La Paz and Maricopa Counties into an expanded firing range for the Yuma Proving Ground. According to Val Morill of the Army’s Range Sustainability program:
“We’d like to take everything from I-8 to I-10 all the way to Gila Bend and Highway 85.”
The BLM lands in the area west of Phoenix being reviewed by the Army include parts of the New Water Mountains Wilderness, Eagletail Wilderness, Signal Mountain Wilderness and Woolsey Peak Wilderness. In addition, the Army is looking at proposed takeover of buffers on the west, north and east sides of the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in the La Posa and Palomas Plains.
“The Army says this is still only at a conceptual stage, but it is clear they are looking hard at a massive expansion of weapons testing and firing ranges,” stated PEER Southwest Director Daniel R. Patterson, an ecologist formerly with BLM. “If it proceeds, the public will be shut out of a huge area of public lands.”
Removal of BLM lands for military use would require an act of Congress. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a high-ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee has been supportive of expanding Yuma Proving Ground, which now covers nearly 1,400 square miles and offers opportunity for desert training and testing of medium and long range artillery, armored and wheeled vehicles and a variety of munitions. The area is also within the district of Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), who chairs the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, which has jurisdiction over any such transfer.
Although the lands in question are under the jurisdiction of the BLM, that agency has yet to be consulted by the Army about expansion plans, according to a top BLM-Arizona official contacted by PEER.
“The Army says it needs more space to shoot bigger weapons that fire farther than ever,” Patterson added, noting the Army’s Ft. Irwin in southern California was also recently enlarged for tank training activities. “The dilemma is how much American soil will have to be sacrificed for refining weapons designed to defend it.”
Apart from the recreational and scientific values of the lands, these scenic and fragile stretches of the Sonoran Desert are studded with mountains, springs, saguaro cacti and ironwood trees that harbor rare wildlife such as the Desert Tortoise and Desert Bighorn Sheep.