Pentagon, Environmentalists Battle Over Training Impact


ABC News

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. Since this sprawling base was carved out of a cattle ranch at the onset of World War II, Marines have stormed an unassuming stretch of beach here countless times to train for battles from Iwo Jima to Nasariyah.
The Marines have subjected Red Beach, as the 1,500-yard piece of Southern California sand is known, to punishing treatment in mock exercises designed to prepare them for combat.

Now the Defense Department is doing battle over Red Beach itself, part of a larger war the Pentagon is waging in Congress over the nation's more than 425 military installations, the largest of which dot states throughout the West _ from the 2 million acres of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to the 870,000 acres of Fort Wainwright in Alaska.

The Pentagon fears much of that land, originally set aside for its exclusive use, could be snatched away from it by the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws that address everything from porpoises to pollution. At stake, it argues, is the U.S. military's very ability to train in peace as it fights in war.

To counter the perceived threat of laws such as the Superfund and Clean Air Act, the Pentagon is pushing for exemptions.

"Use of the terrain is absolutely essential and is at the heart of our training," said John Walsh, a special assistant in the Pentagon office of the deputy undersecretary of defense for readiness. "Those pieces of terrain can't be reserved for the fostering of endangered species."

Environmentalists vehemently oppose the initiative and call it an unwarranted rollback of the nation's key environmental laws. They fear other agencies could follow the Pentagon's lead and seek similar exemptions, leading to an overall weakening of the laws.

"Essentially, it's an administrative and legislative strategy to exempt them from key environmental laws that every American and every other agency has to comply with," said Susan Holmes, senior legislative representative for the environmental group Earthjustice.

The dispute comes at a time when military installations stand as rare islands on the land that represent some of the best, if not last, habitat for many of the nation's rarest species.

Although much of the land included in the nation's 425 military installations gets hammered by tanks and troops, they also include large buffers that remain pristine and untouched.

If it weren't for the break provided by Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, for example, Los Angeles and San Diego would likely merge into a single megalopolis, stretching 150 miles along the Southern California coast.

More than 300 threatened or endangered species of wildlife can be found today on the 25 million acres set aside for military use, the Pentagon estimates.

Camp Pendleton alone is home to 18 such species or more than many national parks can claim. Two, the coastal California gnatcatcher, a bird, and the tidewater goby, a small fish, are found in the skinny stretch of brush and wetlands abutting Red Beach, despite its more than a half-century of use.

The presence of those and other species, squeezed onto Camp Pendleton by rampant development beyond its perimeter, could lead to the effective loss of 70,000 of the base's 125,000 acres, said base officials, who fear the land could be designated as critical habitat.

"This is ominous. This threatens the ability of this base to operate as a Marine Corps training base," said Stan Norquist, head of the natural resources department at Camp Pendleton.

Environmentalists dispute that claim and maintain the true figure is closer to 875 acres. Any other designated habitat on the base would be on farm fields or within San Onofre State Park, both of which lie within Camp Pendleton's boundaries.

The White House-backed exemptions package, known as the Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative, was introduced last year and contained eight provisions.

Congress passed three of the provisions last year, including a temporary waiver from the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which covers 850 species of birds, and an easing of requirements for land conservation and transfer of surplus property.

This year, the Pentagon reintroduced the remaining five as part of what is likely an ongoing campaign to win the exemptions it seeks.

As of October, just one of the five provisions, which would allow for the exemption of some military land from critical habitat provisions of the Endangered Species Act, made it into the Senate version of the 2004 defense authorization bill. The House version also includes Navy-sought exemptions from the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

A Capitol Hill conference committee is hashing out the differences between the two versions this month.

The sought-after exemptions add to an already contentious conference, since the committee is also taking up proposals for tactical nuclear weapons and a buy-American mandate for the military.

The Department of Defense claims the environmental laws, coupled with population growth and development, have significantly restricted its use of land set aside for training and testing, including live-fire exercises. Such encroachment will worsen and could lead to a "death of a thousand cuts" to readiness unless Congress steps in, Pentagon officials have warned.

However, a 2002 report by the General Accounting Office failed to uncover any data to quantify the impact of that encroachment on military training and costs.

And former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman, in Senate testimony earlier this year, could not cite a single case where military training had been held up by environmental laws. Opponents point out that the laws currently allow for case-by-case exemptions for the military.

"There's no justification for it at all. There is no evidence presented by the military that training has suffered because of environmental laws," said Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Camp Pendleton subsequently undertook its own effort to do so. It now claims, for certain exercises involving entire units, it can accomplish just 68 percent of the training tasks required of it.

"No one has ever suggested something is failing and Marines aren't ready, but it's getting harder, harder and harder," Norquist said.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., and a longtime supporter of the military, opposes the proposed exemptions as redundant. The Defense Department already has authority to exempt itself from environmental law if national security is at stake, said his aide, George Behan.

"This is a solution in search of a problem," Behan said.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., disagrees.

The Defense Department "has never exercised its authority to exempt itself because under current law the process is too cumbersome and time-consuming for the military to use it," said Gallegly aide Thomas Pfeifer.

Environmentalists fear the effort is part of a broader agenda to weaken the laws across the board.

"What's really going on with the push here is the Bush administration wants to get rid of these laws, period," Patterson said.

The current House version seeks exemptions from two laws, the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection acts. The Senate version covers only endangered species.

The House version alarms environmentalists the most. It would exempt the Pentagon from habitat-protection mandates outlined in the Endangered Species Act, if the military substitutes its own plans to ensure the survival of the affected species.

Pentagon officials said their plans are effective. Environmentalists say they are unfunded, rarely implemented and ineffective.

The Senate version differs in that it would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review the plans before the Pentagon can implement them.

The House version would also exempt the Pentagon from restrictions that curtail the killing or harming of marine mammals, including dolphins and whales.

The Pentagon complains that the need to safeguard marine mammals hinders the development and testing of low-frequency sonar. The sonar is needed to detect the growing threat posed by quiet diesel submarines operated by North Korea, Iran and others, Pentagon officials said.

The Navy and environmentalists recently settled a lawsuit over the sonar that limited its peacetime use to areas along the eastern seaboard of Asia. The Navy also agreed to seasonal restrictions designed to protect whale migrations, and to avoid using the system near the coast. The restrictions do not apply during time of war, and are still subject to the judge's approval.

The suit by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups claimed the powerful sonar system harasses and can even kill marine mammals. In 2000, sonar tests in the Bahamas apparently caused the deaths of eight whales. Necropsies revealed hemorrhaging around the cetaceans' brains and ear bones _ injuries consistent with exposure to loud noise.

On land, the military said it has been a good steward to the endangered and threatened species with which it shares quarters. Officials frequently cite one of the rarest mammals found in the United States, the Sonoran pronghorn antelope. The pronghorn's primary habitat in the United States lies within Arizona's Barry M. Goldwater Range, where pilots train in live-fire exercises.

On average, 7 percent of all scheduled bombing missions are scrubbed because pronghorn have been spotted near targets, said Air Force Col. James Uken, the Goldwater's range management officer. Another 26 percent are rerouted to secondary targets. The moves ensure the continued survival of the fewer than three dozen antelope that live in the region.

Environmentalists acknowledge the good work the military has done in places, but fear the sought-after exemptions could reverse its conservationist course. They cite examples of where the military has scored poorly on the environment as reason for defeating the Pentagon push.

One of the more recent cases was that of a July controlled fire that escaped control and scorched half of Hawaii's Makua Valley Military Reservation. The fire destroyed scores of rare plants and 150 acres of critical habitat, including four species found nowhere else on Earth.

"Ultimately, what's at stake is the military's legacy of conservation," Patterson said.

Although Congress has been reluctant to embrace the entire Pentagon initiative, the Defense Department has embarked on what likely will be a multiyear campaign to win the exemptions.

"We think encroachment impedes our ability to prepare for war," said Mike Collier, director of the training resources management division at Camp Pendleton. "They come into conflict and one has to give. What gives now? Military readiness."

Opponents of the push see the future of hundreds of endangered and threatened species at stake, calling them the potential losers of the battle over the Pentagon's training lands.

"Without the refuge provided by these bases, many of these species would slide rapidly toward extinction," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, the National Wildlife Federation's senior vice president for conservation.

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