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The San Diego Union-Tribune

The Environment vs. National Defense

By J.F. Kelly Jr.

March 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The San Diego Union-Tribune. All rights reserved. 

Build it and they will come" could have been said about proposed new military facilities. Military bases, like airports, are magnets for commercial and residential development. Locate a military facility in a remote, unpopulated area and a city will soon develop around it.

When the Navy Department offered Miramar to San Diego for one dollar after World War II for use as an airport, the city fathers, displaying typical vision and foresight, asked why anyone would want to locate an airport in such a remote place. Today, commercial and residential development and traffic congestion would argue against its use as an international airport even if it were available for non-military or joint use, which it is not.

Commercial and residential development around the perimeters of military installations and beneath the flight paths of aviation facilities generally triggers the following:

l Formation of citizens' groups opposed to aircraft noise and overflights.

l Formation of environmental protection groups opposed to the military use of any land containing an endangered species, of which there are many.

This problem is generally described by the military as "encroachment." It presents a huge headache to the services, adding greatly to the cost of operating military bases. Not only does it place serious restrictions on the use of military facilities and the scheduling of operations, it consumes countless management hours and budget resources. To say that it is a major problem impacting military readiness is by no means an overstatement.

To illustrate, consider Camp Pendleton. With about 200 square miles, it is regarded by most county residents as an immense expanse of land with room to spare for such things as, perhaps, a new international airport or for consolidating other military functions and installations, freeing up more land for commercial development or public use.

In fact, such is far from the case. At 125,000 acres, Camp Pendleton is actually too small for a full regimental exercise, which requires about 165,000 acres. Moreover, with about 47,000 personnel plus families and civilian workers onbase, space needed for its own facilities and infrastructure is actually at a premium.

During the Korean War, about 200,000 Marines were in training at Camp Pendleton at a given time. Today, there wouldn't be enough room for them because urbanization along base boundaries limits the training that can be conducted. The railroad and Interstate 5 take up enormous amounts of land. So do the San Onofre facility, agriculture and state park usage.

Further additions to the list of endangered species impose additional limitations. Almost one-third of the land suitable for training consists of protected areas for 18 endangered species which most of us have never heard of, let alone seen.

The Marine Corps certainly didn't create this problem. Commercial construction and development throughout San Diego County have eliminated 90 percent of the vernal pools in the county. Of those remaining, 90 percent are located in (surprise!) Camp Pendleton and Miramar. Is anyone else in this county in the environmental protection business beside the military?

Environmental restrictions severely limit the use of the beaches and terrain at Camp Pendleton for amphibious assault training and introduce artificialities in the training that detract from the realism that is essential to effective preparation for combat. Having to maneuver around vernal pools and the nesting areas of the Western Snowy Plover and other creatures is more than a minor distraction and builds bad habits, say troop commanders.

Increasingly, they report that their training activities are being driven more by protected species habitat avoidance than by mission-related tactics, according to Stan Norquist, director of Natural Resources at Camp Pendleton. The restrictions even hamper training in the most basic survival skills such as digging foxholes and preparing fighting positions.

The 1973 Endangered Species Act, while commendable and well intentioned, has been used by environmental extremists to, in some cases, bring military operations to a halt. In response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, a U.S. District judge recently issued an injunction barring the Navy from conducting training exercises at Farallon de Medinilla, a small, remote island in the South Pacific Ocean, because of risk to migratory birds. The Navy says not more than five birds per year, including the unhatched, are accidentally killed.

Fortunately, this year's Defense Authorization Act provided some relief for the military with respect to the protection of migratory birds. Use of the live firing range at Vieques in Puerto Rico already has been curtailed because of demonstrations over the accidental death of a Navy civilian employee, the only fatality in the facility's long history.

Live firing exercises and realistic combat training are essential to help prevent accidental military and civilian injuries and deaths in combat. Denying their use to the military is less about protecting the environment than it is about making an anti-military statement.

The war on terrorism and the defense of America have demanded sacrifices from both the military and civilians. It should not, perhaps, be too much to expect that a few bugs and birds also be put at risk in the name of national defense.

Kelly, a retired Navy captain, bank executive and a former Navy League national director and council president, writes and speaks on defense issues. He can be reached via e-mail at

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