Birds And Warriors - Environmental regs restrict training activities of troops



With U.S. troops risking their lives in Iraq, it's a good time to examine rules at home that make it harder for them to prepare to fight. Congress could start by granting the Pentagon's urgent request to change environmental rules and lawsuits that limit military training.

Consider that about 72% of Fort Lewis, Washington, is restricted to troops because it is "critical habitat" for the Northern Spotted Owl -- though none live on the base. Or that 22,000 acres of California's Fort Irwin are largely unusable because of the Desert Tortoise. Or that 77% of Fort Hood in Texas is restricted at some time during the year because of species and cultural artifacts.

The Barry Goldwater range in Arizona must employ four biologists to chase Sonoran pronghorn antelope and close areas if any are found within five kilometers of a target; 30% of the Air Force's live ammunition drops have had to be moved. Environmental lawsuits would put 57% of California's Camp Pendleton out of use. That's a home of the Marines.

America's troops have just 25 million acres on which to train (less than 1% of the nation) but they must look after 300 threatened or endangered species. These restrictions are taking their toll. A General Accounting Office report last year said the situation "limits units' ability to train as they would expect to fight..."

It's not as if the military isn't trying. From 1991-2001, the military spent $48 billion on environmental programs, sometimes to its own detriment. When the loggerhead shrike was listed endangered in 1977, San Clemente Island had 13 birds. Under the Navy's care the population has grown to 160 (70 in the wild), forcing the Navy in turn to reduce the size of two firing ranges -- one by 90%, the other by 50%.

The reforms sought by the Pentagon aren't large, merely common-sense clarifications of law. Several were first proposed by none other than the Clinton Administration, and not one would exempt the military from its environmental obligations.

For example, under the Endangered Species Act environmental groups can get judges to declare swathes of bases "critical habitat" that are off-limits to real training. The military merely wants more flexibility to design species management plans that still allow for human use of the land. The Marine Mammal Act penalizes anyone who "harasses" marine mammals, and all the military wants is a clear, reasonable definition of mammal harassment. (We assume it's more than a lewd comment.) Other changes include clarification of clean-up at live bases, flexibility in the clean air statute and a fix to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Yet from the howls from green groups, you'd think the Pentagon had decided to bomb Yellowstone. The Natural Resources Defense Council and other enviros claim there is no military readiness problem, as if they're qualified to judge. Wouldn't you rather trust the generals who have to prevail against Republican Guard tanks?

Michigan Democrats Carl Levin and John Dingell have fought these changes, with Mr. Dingell lending his familiar voice of moderation by calling the proposals opportunistic and therefore "despicable." Sounds to us like he's afraid he might have to vote on them. The GOP Congress might as well give him the chance to favor the loggerhead shrike over the 7th Cavalry.

Updated March 27, 2003


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