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The Gazette


Green Marines/ When Endangered Species Also Endanger Soldiers

September 7, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Gazette. All rights reserved. 

U.S. Marines have performed admirably in Afghanistan, according to the recent assessment of Lt. Gen. Edward Hanlon Jr., commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, though they reportedly came up short in at least one important battlefield fundamental - many apparently hadn't learned how to dig foxholes.

The primary reason for this deficiency, according to Hanlon, is that federal environmental laws - most notably, the Endangered Species Act - prevent the digging of any holes at the Marine Corps' West Coast training base at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

But Camp Pendleton isn't the only military training site where such restrictions are in place, inhibiting the ability of the services to fully train soldiers, sailors, Marines and pilots before we put them in harm's way. In fact, nearly every live-fire training site in the nation is struggling to cope with one degree of restriction or another, jeopardizing military readiness and national security due to what Pentagon officials euphemistically call "encroachment" issues.

In some cases, encroachment-related training restrictions are mandated by federal environmental laws that protect endangered animals against harassment or harm. In others, they are being forced upon the military by lawsuits from, or protests by, environmental groups. And still others are the result of protests by civilian "not in my backyard" types who move into areas immediately abutting military bases, then begin to carp about the noise, dust, etc.

Collectively, all three types of encroachment, if not addressed in some kind of comprehensive and common-sense way, could potentially lead to a crisis in military readiness at which the foxhole problem only hints.

Nearly half of the beach at the Navy SEAL training base at Coronado Island, Calif., is off limits to use for much of the year because that shoreline also serves as a nesting ground for a bird classified as endangered, the snowy plover. Similar bird protections leave only one of the 17 miles of shoreline at Camp Pendleton available for amphibious training year-round. At Fort Hood, Texas, only 17 percent of the base's 185,000-acre training area remains unencumbered by one environmental restriction or another.

Camp Pendleton and nearby Marine Corps Air Station Miramar not long ago avoided even larger disruptions by striking a deal with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to avoid the designation of large portions of both facilities as "critical habitat" for endangered species. But those compromise agreements are being challenged in court by environmental groups that want to force designations which could close down more than half of each base.

Other sites, like Vieques Island off Puerto Rico , are being abandoned due to protests and political pressure. A lawsuit from several environmental groups also has halted live-fire training on the Pacific island of Farallon de Medinilla, where Navy aviators have for decades been conducting bombing practice, because those activities can potentially harm migratory birds. This the plaintiffs say is a violation of the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Lawsuits or protests have also been used in attempts to curtail or prevent use of Arizona's Barry Goldwater Bombing Range, Hawaii's Makua Military Reservation, the Marine Corps' bombing range at San Clemente Island, Calif., and the Navy's Pinecastle bombing range in Florida's Ocala National Forest.

In addition, NIMBY protests also have been focused on a number of formerly remote military facilities that are now surrounded by housing developments, including Camp Lejeune's Greater Sandy Run gunnery range, a Navy/Marine Corps bombing range in Pamlico Sound, N.C., and the Naval Air Station at Fallon, Nev.

The Pentagon over the years has waged its escalating encroachment battles quietly, trying to diffuse these and other situations by being good neighbors to nearby communities and vastly improving its stewardship of the estimated 25 million acres of public land under military management. But as the situation has become more dire, some Pentagon brass, including Hanlon, have begun speaking out.

Pentagon brass are particularly concerned that the migratory bird treaty lawsuit, if successful, could bring a halt to live-fire training at virtually any military facility where migratory birds are known to visit. They went to Congress earlier this year seeking a partial waiver of that and several other environmental laws they believe are hurting readiness. Though only two of the Pentagon's eight waiver requests made progress in the House of Representatives - thanks to the extraordinary effort of our own Rep. Joel Hefley, chairman of the House Military Readiness Subcommittee - they stalled in the Senate and are unlikely to win full congressional approval this year (barring some last-minute heroics in the House-Senate defense authorization conference committee, of which Hefley is a member).

Until public awareness and political pressure lead to a comprehensive counter offensive against the myriad encroachment threats, the Pentagon will be forced to fight these battles one at a time. And given the nature of the attacks, and the of strength and determination of the opposition, knowing how to dig foxholes could certainly come in handy.

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