Overzealous Environmental Rules Impede U.S. Military Training

If a Marine landing on Red Beach at Camp Pendleton travels off one of the three authorized roads leaving the beach, he risks a $50,000 fine and other penalties. He’s not being disciplined for putting himself or his fellow soldiers at risk. Instead, he damaged the nesting area of the California least tern, a seabird protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).1

Camp Pendleton is home to 17 plants and animals considered endangered by the federal government.2 Regulations protecting them and their habitats cripple Marine training. In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried to label 56 percent of Camp Pendleton and 65 percent of neighboring Miramar Air Station (the home of “Top Gun”) as critical endangered species habitat, thereby putting it off-limits to training.3

When a compromise was reached to allow training to continue in many areas, environmentalists filed a lawsuit to enforce the original restrictions.4

Camp Pendleton and Miramar are not isolated cases:

  • Mechanized units from Ft. Irwin cannot train in the Mojave Desert at night because they might run over a desert tortoise. Combat operations in Iraq are happening mostly at night.5
  • At Ft. Lewis, 72 percent of training land is critical habitat for the northern spotted owl even though none are known to live there.6
  • Despite studies showing it posed minimal danger to sea life, a court ordered the Navy to work with environmentalists to determine how and when sensor equipment developed to track quiet diesel submarines – like those owned by North Korea – could be used for training.7
  • Navy SEALs at Coronado Island practice beach landings in specific areas so they don’t disturb nesting areas of the western plover and California least tern. For up to seven months a year, practice areas can shrink by 40 percent due to the presence of the snowy plover.8
  • Only 17 percent of Ft. Hood isn’t restricted by federal regulation. The Clean Water Act makes digging illegal on 70 percent of the post. The Clean Air Act prohibits smoke, flares and other pyrotechnics on 25 percent. Camouflage netting cannot be used on 40 percent because of golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos, and other ESA concerns restrict vehicles to paved roads between March and August.9

With our armed forces engaged in combat in the Persian Gulf and at risk in the Korea Peninsula, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the possibility they are without effective training is unsettling.

Their commanders aren’t intentionally putting them in danger. Our military is quite possibly the best the world has ever seen, but forcing soldiers to use the same fields and roads or scaling back training exercises to comply with environmental regulations can create a familiarity that may betray soldiers in chaotic battlefield situations.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Wayne Arny recently told Congress: “Before our nation sends it most valuable asset – our men and women, our sons and daughters – into harm’s way, we owe it to them and the American public to prepare them as best as we can to fight, survive and win. That starts with realistic and comprehensive training with the best equipment available.”10 But, according to Marine Colonel Bennett W. Saylor, quoted last year at Camp Pendleton, “There are certain standards in our training and readiness manuals that we cannot conduct.”11

In response, the Pentagon wants more leeway. With White House approval, the 2004 defense spending bill includes a reinterpretation of five major environmental regulations – including the ESA and Clean Air Act.12

This doesn’t mean soldiers at Ft. Lewis can declare war on the spotted owl or the Navy can intentionally harm whales with sonar. It does mean responsible-yet-realistic battlefield training can resume in areas where it is currently banned. The fact that endangered species seem to flock to military bases is a testament the Pentagon’s stewardship of the land is owns. In 2003, the military allocated over $4 billion for environmental projects.13

When it comes of the safety of those who would lay down their lives for our freedoms here in the United States, we can surely make compromises. We owe them no less.

  David Almasi is executive director of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Footnotes1 Gidget Fuentes, “Marines Tackle Complex Limitations at Camp Pendleton,” North County Times, July 1, 2002; March 2003 interview of Mike Collier, director of training at Camp Pendleton, who told the author that Marines training on Red Beach are told in advance to keep away from the vegetated areas and stay on prescribed exit paths. Should a Marine drive, dig or similarly upset the vegetated areas, he is considered to be in violation of orders from his superior and subject to both military discipline and the federal penalties related to disruption of critical habitat.

2 Ibid.

3 Testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary (Installations and Facilities) Wayne Arny, U.S. Navy, before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Readiness, Armed Services Committee, Washington, D.C., March 13, 2003.

4 Ibid.

5 “EPW Fact of the Day: Oblivious,” e-mail communication, Committee on Environment and Public Works, U.S. Senate, March 7, 2003.

6 “Operation End Extremism,” e-mail communication, Committee on Environment and Public Works, U.S. Senate, March 17, 2003.

7 Testimony of Wayne Arny.

8 Bonner Cohen, “Environmental Regulations Impede Pentagon Readiness,” The Heartland Institute, Chicago, Illinois, March 1, 2003.

9 Sean Paige, “Under Siege: One Reason Our Military Readiness is Down: We Won’t Let Them Train,” Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., November 1, 2001.

10 Testimony of Wayne Arny.

11 Fuentes.

12 Suzanne Struglinksi, “DOD Requests Five Changes to Environmental Laws,” Environment and Energy Daily, March 6, 2003.

13 Ibid.

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