US military eyes more environmental leeway

Monday the Senate takes up a measure that would exempt military grounds from some environmental laws.

The war on terrorism, especially in Afghanistan, is giving Americans a new window into the future of global conflict: guerrilla and special-forces tactics with unseen foes, without the front lines and battalion-force battles of yesteryear.

But as US forces continue to prepare for this future of unconventional war – with new maneuvers, weaponry, and strategy – defense officials say America's military readiness is increasingly running smack-dab into an unlikely foe: regulations protecting endangered plants and animals on military-training installations.

• In California's Mojave Desert, Marine commanders say they can train only in the daytime because endangered desert tortoises might be trampled at night. Navy SEALs on Coronado Island say the snowy plover has restricted beach exercises.

• In Camp Lejeune, N.C., nesting turtles hamper amphibious landing practice, and a rare species of woodpeckers halts inland training.

• In the Northern Marianas, a court injunction has banned live-fire training exercises because migratory birds might be hit.

Now, however, in a move that defense officials say is necessary for sufficient quick-strike capability in a post-Sept. 11 world, the House has adopted a measure that exempts the military from strict environmental laws on its vast holdings.

The stakes are huge. The Department of Defense controls 25 million acres of land – equivalent to the total area of Maine and New Hampshire combined, or all the rural land developed in the US over the past 15 years. More than 425 military installations provide sanctuary to 300 species listed as endangered or threatened.

The exemptions from the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act are contained in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2003, which passed the House in May and is scheduled to go before the Senate today.

Environmentalists fear that the new exemptions will put government above the law and seriously diminish hundreds of species of endangered plants and animals. They say the measures escaped the usual scrutiny of environmental oversight committees.

Some observers say Senate versions of the bill could also exempt Defense from sections of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, and some hazardous-waste laws.

"The Bush administration is trying to take advantage of 9/11 to eliminate environmental protections and hold the Department of Defense above the law," says Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz. "It's not like we are losing wars or getting beat up on foreign shores. The military should be defending and protecting our nation and environment, not ruining it."

Defense officials say they are only trying to safeguard national security that has been under intense scrutiny since the terrorist attacks. They say their proposals are narrowly focused on policies that affect only military training and testing, and are not using the war on terrorism as political cover.

"We have increasingly faced the inescapable fact that more and more training lands are now unavailable for realistic combat, live-fire training," says Raymond DuBois, deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations and environment. The proposals, he says, "are designed to save the lives of our young people by preparing them for combat on the first day of battle."

But environmental groups say the military does not need to eliminate protections for hundreds of species nationwide. "The law gives the Defense secretary authority to secure exemptions from the Endangered Species Act, including protected habitats, when he feels they are necessary for national security," says Randy Moorman of Earthjustice, a national environmental group based in Washington. "We say, if they have a specific problem, use this exemption, but instead they want to exempt 25 million acres of critical habitat all across the country."

Still, Pentagon officials say that training on practically every base in America has been increasingly hampered by different court interpretations of endangered-species laws. They say different courts have defined different procedures that govern their behavior – such as the ambiguous definition of "harassment" of marine mammals. They would like a uniform standard to be articulated.

They also say that sidestepping various species of birds and plants in different geographical locations makes standardized training nearly impossible. And they hold that invoking the secretary-level exemption is too time-consuming and bureaucratic.

"We have 1.3 million military [personnel] all over the world that we are trying to keep trained, and when you begin to add up all the logistics and volume of waivers and exemptions that would be necessary, you find it becomes burdensome," says Ben Owens, a Defense spokesman.

Environmental groups say that the new exemptions passed the House because they were submitted in committee at the last minute as amendments to the larger bill. Such amendments cannot be individually struck down without killing the entire bill.

They quote a recent Zogby America poll, finding that 85 percent of voters do not want any government agency to be placed above the law. The poll also finds that only 19 percent believe environmental laws interfere with military readiness.

Defense officials counter that the US military has a strong record on the environment, has requested billions in environmental-protection programs, and has proposed changes that are focused on military readiness only. "I believe the American people support our men and women in uniform," says Mr. DuBois. "The military also has a unique duty to prepare for and win armed conflicts."

So far, the exemption language has not appeared in the defense authorization bill in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But "there is every chance that these exemptions will appear as amendments on the floor," says David Dandretti, press secretary to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, who opposes the exemptions. "We are always on the guard to stop these kinds of rollbacks and anti-environmental riders."

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