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The Dallas Morning News

Is The Military Encroaching On Nature, Or Vice Versa? Environmental Protections Impose Increasing Burden On Armed Forces

November 26, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Dallas Morning News, L.P. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2000 Gale Group Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

The Navy SEALs are some of the toughest troops in the U.S. military, trained to disarm nuclear bombs, survive for hours in icy waters and kill people with their bare hands. But two dainty shorebirds have the commandos in a retreat from one of their strongholds, and some people worry that one day they could be forced to give it up altogether.

The birds - the Western snowy plover and the least tern - are protected species. As their nesting area has expanded across the SEALs' seaside training ground at Coronado Amphibious Naval Base in San Diego, the SEALs have been forced to use a smaller and smaller portion of the property.

About 40 percent of the acreage is off limits for parts of the six-month nesting season, said Jay Hanson, the Navy's top regional natural-resource official. In the future, he added, "We only see their numbers getting larger and larger."

The SEALs' predicament is one of a growing number of challenges to military training bases that have recently stirred alarm at the Pentagon. Already facing the possible loss of the Navy's prime East Coast live-fire exercise area, in Vieques , Puerto Rico , because of environmental and safety concerns, a top-level Pentagon planning group recently embarked on the first department effort to manage this problem.

Defense officials have long worried about threats to training operations from wildlife protection, and from human neighbors who object to the noise, traffic and pollution generated by military installations. But now these conflicts have accelerated to a point where they "pose a serious and growing threat to readiness," says the declassified version of a report issued in August by the top-level Senior Readiness Oversight Council.

Nowhere has the threat to the military been greater than in California, which has more endangered species than any other state and a human population that has increased by more than one-half in the past 20 years. Nearly every one of the two dozen major installations in the state faces some major challenge to operations.

The Navy is under pressure to expand environmental protection at San Clemente Island, 65 miles off the San Diego County coast, which is the Navy's sole live-fire exercise area in the Pacific. The Marines are battling the proposed federal designation of 51,000 additional acres of Camp Pendleton in San Diego as critical wildlife habitat.

And the Army continues trying to overcome environmental objections that have held up its plans to expand the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, near Barstow, Calif., where Gen. George S. Patton trained American armored units to fight Adolf Hitler. The installation is home to the desert tortoise and other rare species.

Growing pressure

In almost every case, the military opened the installations when there were few or no human neighbors. But as time passed, and their real estate became more precious, they found themselves under pressure to limit their activities and become foster parents for the animals and plants that, in many cases, had no habitat other than what was offered within their barbed-wire perimeters.

Navy officials said that is one of the cruel ironies of their situation with the shorebirds.

The populations of snowy plovers and least terns have flourished on the beach, called Silver Strand, because the Navy 15 years ago began setting aside land to aid a threatened population.

Navy officials have gone to lengths to protect the birds. They pay Interior Department officials to shoot and trap the birds' natural enemies, including wild cats, ravens, gull-bill terns and the American kestrel, which is a small falcon.

The Navy also has contracted with the federal Agriculture Department to poison the ants that bore through the birds' eggs and eat them.

Environmentalists acknowledge that the military faces a large job in taking care of endangered species at its installations, yet they insist that it follow the law regarding environmental protection. And they assert that, in some cases at least, the claims of a threat to military readiness from wildlife preservation may be exaggerated.

Andrew Wetzler, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles, said the Navy "ought to follow the rules, just like everybody else in society."

While the Navy is worried about the seabirds further curtailing its training at Coronado, "that's something that may - or may not - happen in the future."

When the Coronado program started, there were two or three nests in an area smaller than 100 square yards on the east side of the strand, adjacent to San Diego Bay. Now the official nest count is more than 365.

The birds, having run out of available space on the bay side of the strand, have expanded their nesting area to the ocean side, where the ground cover is more suited to their needs. The birds are what the experts call "site tenacious," meaning that they and their offspring will keep returning to their nesting area and trying to expand it.

The bird population has met the original target set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But wildlife officials have indicated they now intend to increase the population target, to a yet-unspecified number.

"We're in the unhappy position of being penalized for our success," Mr. Hanson said.

Navy Capt. David O'Brien, commanding officer of Naval Base Coronado, said that, although the service is committed to protecting the seabirds, officials are "very much concerned" that the population may grow in a way that further limits use of the training area.

SEALs' situation

About 600 SEALs - short for Sea, Air and Land - train along the 10-mile beachfront, as do other Navy and Marine units. Coronado is the SEALs' headquarters and center of West Coast training operations.

The SEALs spend long hours in the area, running in formation, swimming, diving and conducting small-boat operations. Other Navy units practice amphibious landing on the beachfront with larger vehicles, including 85-foot-long LCACs (Landing Craft, Air Cushioned) that can carry a 70-ton tank to land.

Each day before training, Navy officials take a careful inventory of every nest on the beach, then cordon off the area where the birds nest. Before the bird population expanded, the SEALs and other units could practice landings just as they would in wartime, with relatively large numbers of amphibious vehicles.

Now, however, the bigger vehicles are confined to wet sand areas. So while the SEALs are still conducting 1,500 training exercises a year, "what's suffering is the realism," Capt. O'Brien said.

Military officials say the SEALs' story is typical of the way such conflicts often seem easily manageable when they begin but then become more threatening to operations.

The top-level Pentagon panel that is tackling the problems hopes to anticipate conflicts in the future.

Officials now foresee a conflict over military airspace, for example, because of air-traffic-control systems now in development that would free commercial aircraft from the old air traffic corridors. Another conflict has been set off by the communications revolution, which has sharpened civilian appetite for the communication frequencies that are now used by the troops at military ranges and bases.

Officials said the military is eager to cooperate but must be careful about what it gives up.

"It's realistic training that separates us from the other militaries of the world," said Thomas K. Longstreth, an assistant Defense secretary. "And it's this elaborate infrastructure that allows us to do it."

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