by Andrew Bridges / Associated Press –
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (October 19, 2003) AP — 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. These range 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 US military’s ability to train in peace as it fights in war.
To counter the perceived threat of laws such as the Superfund and Clean Air acts, 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, weakening 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.
Military Lands: Wildlife’s Unlikeliest Refuges
The dispute comes at a time when military installations stand as some of the best, if not last, habitat for rare 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.
If not 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. 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 half-century of use.
Base officials fear the presence of those and other species, squeezed onto Camp Pendleton by rampant development beyond its perimeter, could curtail use of 70,000 of the base’s 125,000 acres, if the land is designated 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.
RRPI: A License to Train to Kill
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 provisions.
As of October, just one of the five, 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.
The Department of Defense says 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 US General Accounting Office failed to uncover any data to quantify the impact of that encroachment on 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.
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., 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.
Bombs versus Pronghorns
The military said it has been a good steward to endangered and threatened species. 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; 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.
One was 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; four species in the area are found nowhere else.
“Ultimately, what’s at stake is the military’s legacy of conservation,” Patterson said.
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