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Army weapons base seeks more Arizona desert land

June 28, 2007|Alison Williams | Times Staff Writer

A plan to expand an Army artillery range could annex as much as 500,000 acres of federally managed desert in southwestern Arizona that is home to a variety of wildlife, including desert bighorn sheep, Sonoran desert tortoise and endangered lesser long-nosed bats.

The plan being considered by the Army's Yuma Proving Ground, near the border with California, would expand the facility beyond its 840,000 acres to accommodate the increasing distance that artillery shells can be fired.

Chuck Wullenjohn, public affairs officer for the proving ground, said that the 50-mile-long artillery range would soon be too short and that the facility was "looking into the future to maintain viability."

Though it may take several years to approve, environmental groups and government officials have already expressed concern.

The proving ground is used by the United States and other countries to test ammunition, Wullenjohn said. The testing must be done on a large piece of open land because shells must be retrieved and rounds can potentially go off course.

Wullenjohn said the expansion could take land now administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management in Yuma, La Paz and Maricopa counties between Interstate 8 and Interstate 10.

Wullenjohn said plans to obtain the land were at a very early stage, and that the land transfer would have to be approved by the Department of the Army and, ultimately, Congress.

Although the 500,000 acres encompass some wilderness areas, Wullenjohn said, "We intend to leave [them] within BLM hands as much as possible."

Nevertheless, Daniel R. Patterson, southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and a former BLM ecologist, said the expansion would endanger sensitive wildlife habitat and curtail desert recreation opportunities for 4 million Phoenix-area residents.

Ron Kearns, a retired wildlife biologist and law enforcement officer at Kofa National Wildlife Refuge next to the proving grounds, warned of increased fire danger if the Army expanded its jurisdiction in the desert.

He cited a 26,000-acre fire on the Kofa refuge in 2005 that was started by munitions testing at the proving ground.

Patterson said fires could eliminate forage for bighorn sheep and kill tortoises, both of which have declining populations. Desert bighorn also are especially susceptible to any kind of stress, including loud noises from explosions and human activity.

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) represents the district in which the potential expansion would occur and also chairs the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, which would have jurisdiction over the land transfer.

His press secretary, Natalie Luna, said Grijalva was particularly concerned because a large portion of the southern Arizona desert had already been damaged by illegal immigrants and Border Patrol activities. Expansion by the military might add to the burden on the desert and the loss of natural areas, she said.


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