Military seeks relief from laws on wildlife
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Pentagon plans to ask Congress next month
for relief from environmental regulations that protect endangered
species and critical habitats on millions of acres of military training
ranges across the country, saying those controls impede crucial exercises
and combat readiness.
"While we are arguably one of the best environmental stewards in the government today, there is a first and foremost obligation that the secretary of defense has, and that is to properly prepare our troops for combat," said Raymond DuBois Jr., deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment.
"Protecting natural resources is not incompatible with protecting access to the land, air and sea space necessary for that realistic combat training," he said. "The military readiness issue here sometimes gets lost."
What DuBois and other Pentagon officials consider "common sense" solutions strike environmental groups as an assault on six significant environmental laws, from the Endangered Species Act to the Clean Air Act.
"The essence of what they're saying is, national defense requires destroying what it is they're trying to defend," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based environmental group. "And for the military on environmental issues to say 'trust us,' given their horrendous record, is insane."
Both sides describe the stakes in a looming battle on Capitol Hill as high. Vast expanses of military land, required for highly mobile combat training and bombing practice, contain some of the most pristine natural habitats in the United States, home to more than 300 federally protected plant and animal species.
Combat training ranges cover nearly 30 million acres, about 1 percent of the lower 48 states.
The Pentagon failed to win approval of a similar legislative package last year, partly because it presented the controversial amendments at the last minute in an otherwise sympathetic House, and partly because more-hostile Democrats controlled the Senate.
Acknowledging past errors, defense officials headed by Paul Mayberry, deputy undersecretary of defense for readiness, have devised a detailed strategy. It involves presenting the proposals early in the new legislative session, then working hard to win over critics on Capitol Hill and at the state level, where opposition runs high.
An internal strategy document, leaked to Ruch's organization, says the Pentagon needs "to get off the defensive" and "work to improve and extend outreach to a wide range of targeted stakeholders over the course of the coming year to build a foundation for future range sustainment success."
Beyond amending the environmental statutes by adding language to the 2004 defense authorization act, Mayberry's group also favors enactment of a regulatory process under which federal agencies would have to file "defense impact statements" -- similar to existing environmental impact statements -- before taking actions, such as designating parklands, that could hamper the military's ability to conduct training exercises.
Success might depend upon how well officials answer concerns raised last year by the General Accounting Office. It concluded that while environmental regulations and rapid commercial development are indeed encroaching on military ranges, the Pentagon could not quantify any adverse impact.
"Over time, the impact of encroachment on training ranges has gradually increased," the GAO reported. "However . . . the overall impact on readiness is not well documented."
In the absence of such data -- the Pentagon does not even have an inventory of all its training ranges -- the debate revolves around a series of highly publicized examples. Camp Pendleton, Calif., home to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, is high on the list.
Defense officials said environmental regulations that protect 18 endangered species prohibit the Marines from conducting mock amphibious assaults on all but 1,500 meters of the camp's 17-mile beachfront between Orange and San Diego counties. They say Camp Pendleton offers a classic illustration of how intense development and population pressure have forced wildlife onto military preserves, turning combat training grounds into teeming wildlife areas.
A pending lawsuit, the officials said, could lead to the designation of 56 percent of the base and 65 percent of the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego as critical habitat, further restricting training activities. One legislative change the Pentagon is seeking would enable military ranges to avoid designation as critical habitats under the Endangered Species Act as long as they followed acceptable natural resource management plans required under another federal law.
Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles, which filed the suit, said Pendleton and Miramar are critical habitats for the endangered coastal California gnatcatcher, a small songbird threatened by development from the Mexican border to Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles.
Allowing military installations to supersede the Endangered Species Act with their own natural resource management plans, which are far less stringent, would imperil the gnatcatcher and numerous other endangered species, Reynolds said.
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