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BY Mark Goldberg
1 November 2004
FOR A FEDERAL STATUTE, the Wilderness Act of 1964 contains some unusually poetic language. As if channeling Henry David Thoreau, the act defines a federal wilderness area as a place "where the earth and its community are untrammeled by man ... retaining its primeval character and influence ... and that generally appears to have been affected primarily by forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable."
It's therefore a wonder how on God's green earth a large swath of land used as a naval bombing range for 50 years could qualify as a federal wilderness area. And yet in April 2003, when the Navy ceased its operations on the tiny Puerto Rican island of Vieques, the Department of Defense turned over the territorial jurisdiction of lands it formerly used as ammo dumps, training facilities, and bombing ranges to the Department of the Interior. The Interior Department, in accord with an act of Congress, then "administered" about 900 acres of the eastern portion of the island as a designated wilderness area.
This not-at-all-innocent distinction means that humans are not allowed access to the area. And this is exactly why Congress-more precisely, some members of the House Armed Services Committee-colluded with the Department of Defense in 2002 to designate these 900 acres as "wilderness." The Navy is responsible for the costs of cleaning portions of Vieques, but by declaring the former bombing range uninhabitable, the Navy is magically spared the task of clearing unexploded munitions.
While no one actually lives on the former bombing range, there is a town close by, and the possibility remains that lead and other contaminants might leach into the groundwater. Furthermore, contamination from the site could migrate to the ocean from storm-water runoff on the beaches. Nearly half the residents of Vieques eat fish once or twice a week, and a contaminated fish and shellfish population could create a public-health crisis throughout the island. Should this happen, points out Congressman Jose Serrano of the Bronx, a champion of the environmental cleanup of Vieques who commissioned the Congressional Research Service report that brought this tale to light, the Navy would be required to pay for the cleanup-and might be liable for a good deal more than that.
No doubt these fields of unexploded ordnance and contaminants make for a unique habitat, but that's not quite the same as "primeval."