LAS VEGAS — The Air Force wants to extend a training area onto a portion of the 1.6 million acres that make up a massive wildlife refuge north of Las Vegas.

The Defense Department announced plans in August that would expand the Nevada Test and Training Range by more than 300,000 acres.

About 278,000 acres are on part of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the biggest wildlife refuge in the Lower 48 and Hawaii. About half the 1.6 million acres of the refuge are blocked from the public and controlled by the military.

A public hearing in North Lags Vegas on Thursday will wrap up a series of meetings to get input from residents, reported the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Refuge manager Amy Sprunger and her boss Christy Smith are worried about the proposal's impact on wildlife and public access.

"In the desert, once you damage it, it's done," Smith said. "You're going to wait eons and eons for it to recover."

Sprunger said the refuge is home to as many as 700 bighorn sheep and is one of the few places near the Las Vegas Valley where people can find seclusion.

"It's rare to see other vehicles. It's rare to see other people," she said. "Even if you only come here once, you might experience something you'd never experience anywhere else."

Air Force civilian project manager Mike Ackerman says the expansion would allow faster, higher-altitude training exercises that more closely resemble real life.

"There's not a whole lot of ground disturbance associated with what the Air Force wants to do," he said. "Less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the ground would be disturbed."

Ackerman said the Air Force is partnering with wildlife officials on the state and federal level to track bighorns in the Sheep Mountains.

He said people will be able to provide more input after the Air Force releases a draft environmental impact statement, likely later this year. A final version is expected early in 2018.

Smith said she wants pilots to get training as much as anyone.

"We all share those values," Smith said. "But can't we do it and maintain this as well? Can't we do it together?"

Congress isn't expected to vote on the proposal before 2018.

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