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The Gazette

Bunnies Or Bombs?/ DOD Again Seeks Environmental Exemptions

March 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Gazette. All rights reserved. 

Rep. Joel Hefley on Thursday chaired congressional hearings in Washington about yet another quagmire into which the U.S. military is being drawn - a relatively obscure guerilla war, little noticed but with big implications. It's not being fought in the Philippines, the Horn of Africa or lawless regions of Pakistan, however, but right here on American soil, nearly everywhere our military personnel are stationed or training for battle. It's a fight for control of nearly 25 million acres of public land on which the military trains or has bases, the use of which is increasingly restricted by environmental laws, environmental lawsuits and the intolerant residents of nearby communities who are annoyed by the noise, dust and occasional inconveniences of living near a base.

The military calls these emerging obstacles to training "encroachment issues," but they are much more than just the conflicts that occur when formerly remote training facilities find themselves surrounded by subdivisions. They also involve environmental laws, lawsuits and protests that are curtailing training exercises and inhibiting the military's ability to test new technologies.

Probably the largest encroachment problems we've had locally involve the Air Force Academy, where land use restrictions are in place to protect the allegedly endangered Preble's meadow jumping mouse and some individuals in nearby communities have complained about aircraft noise, forcing some adjustments to flight training procedures. But far more serious encroachment controversies are erupting almost everywhere the military trains, collectively threatening to hurt our military readiness.

The most valuable live fire bombing range on the Atlantic coast, Vieques Island, off Puerto Rico, last month was permanently closed because of protests and politics. Some Puerto Rican activists claimed that training was causing local health problems, and President Bush eventually caved in to their demands that the facility be closed, in a probably futile effort to curry favor with Hispanic voters. The training that transpired at Vieques served as the final test for carrier battle groups and Marines before they deployed overseas.

Last year also saw the temporary closure of one of the Navy's most important live fire training ranges in the Pacific, the island Farallon de Medinella, because of a lawsuit brought by environmental groups claiming that the bombing killed and wounded migratory birds protected by a 90-year-old treaty, now largely forgotten. And the facility would have stayed closed had Congress not intervened to grant the Navy a temporary waiver from the treaty.

Similar "encroachment" problems can be found almost everywhere the military trains. Training at California's Camp Pendleton Marine base has been restricted, and its 17 miles of beach mostly closed, because of endangered species concerns. And similar restrictions are being experienced at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune; Texas' Fort Hood, Arizona's Barry Goldwater Bombing Range and numerous other military facilities.

The collective impact these lawsuits, protests and legal restrictions are having on military readiness is of such great concern within the Pentagon that in the last two years it has gone to Congress asking for relief. Congress last year took action on only three of eight requests made by the Pentagon, including granting the waiver that allowed bombing practice to continue at Farallon de Medinella. But most of the requests either never made it out of committee or ran into a buzz saw of resistance from the environmental lobby.

The Pentagon this week went back to Congress with another list of environmental exemptions it says will help ensure its ability to "to train effectively, test systems adequately and realistically before fielding, and conduct military operations." The Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative would grant the military limited and specific exemptions from certain provisions of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and Superfund law - all laws that the Pentagon identifies as having the greatest impact on its ability to train.

The Pentagon would like permission to hammer out natural resource management plans with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for taking care of threatened or endangered species found on its bases, rather than run the risk of having "critical habitat designations" that could completely shut down large parts of a facility, for instance.

Thursday's hearings before the Military Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by Hefley, signaled the opening volley in what is sure to be a contentious debate. But we believe that every effort must be made to ensure that our soldiers, Marines, sailors and airman receive the most realistic training possible before we ask them to go into battle.

If that means granting the Pentagon some minor and reasonable exemptions from environmental laws, so be it. And we thank Rep. Hefley for holding these hearings and drawing attention to this little noted, but important political battle.

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