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Legislative Proposal Provokes Debate Over Environmental Impact of US Military Exercises - 2003-05-13

Legislators in the Armed Services Committees of both houses of Congress are debating a proposal that would exempt U.S. military bases from environmental laws that Pentagon officials say hamper military training and testing. But opponents argue that the initiative is unnecessary and would compromise U.S. environmental safeguards.

The U.S. Department of Defense manages 450 military installations across the United States. Taken together, this vast area some 10.1 million hectares also provides sanctuary to hundreds of endangered or threatened species.

The Department of Defense promotes conservation on its property, but Pentagon officials say complying with strict environmental regulations and mounting legal challenges have made it harder to train troops.

Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Environment, John P. Woodley says the Pentagon wants combat-ready soldiers trained under realistic conditions.

"The Vice Chiefs of Staff from all the [armed] services have testified to Congress that some aspects of environmental regulation have a potential, if current trends continue, to degrade our ability to conduct readiness activities on military lands," he said.

The Pentagon has proposed the "Readiness and Range Initiative" as part of the legislative package it submitted recently to Congress.

What the Pentagon defines as "readiness," according to Bonner Cohen, a senior analyst and fellow with the Lexington Institute, is the ability to "prepare troops for the deadly business of combat."

Mr. Cohen cites the example of the Marine Mammal Act restrictions at Camp Pendleton, a large military installation in California with 50,000 hectares, that interfere with training maneuvers of the Navy Seals, an elite maritime commando unit.

"Navy Seals are trained to storm a beach and go on shore. The problem is that the beach also happens to be the habitat for two endangered sea birds. And, what happens today is that Navy Seals jumping off boats often have to go around the potential habitat of the seabirds and in so doing they engage in behavior which they would not carry out if there were a real attack," he said. "There are further problems with the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which is a very vaguely written statute, saying among other things that the military should not harass an animal, but the definition of 'harassment' includes such terms as 'potential to disturb.'"

Mr. Cohen said the Pentagon wants more flexibility to ease restrictions where they conflict with training.

Legislative advocate Karen Wayland with the Natural Resources Defense Council argues that the Pentagon already has a lot of flexibility under law.

"The United States has the best trained, the best equipped military in the world as evidenced by our recent success in Iraq, and that success was achieved under existing environmental laws. Every one of these laws has environmental exemptions for national security purposes, and the Department of Defense has not used those exemptions to date," she said. "Now they are coming to Congress with a package asking for more exemptions, which are blanket exemptions which would apply even when no problem exists."

Department of Defense official John P. Woodley said the Pentagon simply wants a way to better manage routine daily activities.

"...Like training and testing and those things that we have to do to keep our fighting forces on a day to day basis in balance, without having to make reference to an emergency, as if every training activity was suddenly a national emergency," he said. "So, the exemptions are fine for the limited purpose that they (apply), but they are certainly not a substitute for a reasonable and balanced management scheme."

Legislative advocate Karen Wayland says that the "common sense balance" the Pentagon wants to strike between environmental stewardship and wartime readiness amounts to an attack on such landmark laws as the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Clean Air Act.

"Let me state first of all that no one in the environment community wants to impede the ability of the military to train," she said. "I am certainly very proud of the military having come from a family that has served in the military. But on the other hand they have exemptions if they need them, and they haven't used them yet. We feel that this is a push from the Bush administration to roll back environmental laws in anyway possible."

While the Pentagon said it needs exemptions to accomplish its mission, mounting bipartisan opposition from environmental groups, state governors and utility organizations are lobbying Congress to resist any weakening of the laws.

Legislators on the Armed Services Committees of the U.S. Congress are debating these issues as they prepare a legislative package for House and Senate approval.