TCS Daily

Man vs. Beast

By C. C. Kraemer - February 28, 2003 12:00 AM

At Camp Pendleton in Southern California, the U.S. Marine Corps' premier amphibious training base, troops practice the type of beach assault they might one day have to execute on a distant, foreign shore. They swiftly approach across the waves in amphibious vehicles and eventually hit the beach where they, like generations of battle-hardened Marines before them... board a bus that will take them to another part of the base where they continue their training.

Before they can even fire a shot, Marines who are training to kill must tread tenderly on their beach because of the presence the gnatcatcher. That unfortunately named creature is protected by the Endangered Species Act. This small gray songbird is found on roughly 50,000 of the 126,000 acres at Camp Pendleton, so the Marines have to play gracious hosts.

Certainly a case could be made that the real endangered species in this conflict is the U.S. Marine. He is limited in his ability to adequately prepare for war. If his training calls for digging in on the beach, he is forced to go elsewhere on the base to practice that chore. His preparation has no continuity. He cannot, as Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo. says, train as he would fight. Those shortcomings he experiences during exercises can directly lead to death on the battlefield. How can a soldier be prepared to storm a real beach if he's fighting under conditions he's never encountered, asked to do things he's never done?

At one point, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed designating more than 70,000 acres of Camp Pendleton a nature preserve, making it off-limits to military operations. A similar proposal was made for nearly 8,000 acres of the 12,000-acre Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, just down the road from Camp Pendleton.

Constraints like those no doubt prompted Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James L. Jones to write to the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service nearly three years ago to remind bureaucrats that "At stake is the success and survival of our nation's Marines and sailors in combat."

But little has changed since then. The Marines at Camp Pendleton still have to leap bureaucratic hurdles when they practice amphibious assaults. That is when they can actually train at all. The presence of endangered species has on occasion caused the cancellation of exercises.

The Marines-gnatcatcher clash is, unfortunately, not a lone example of eco-activist excess. The same sort of nonsense has handcuffed other military operations. A lawsuit has prevented the Navy from using the sonar to track new quiet submarines that have been put in use by China, North Korea and Iran in recent years because it might disturb wildlife. Roughly a third of Fort Hood's 200,000 training acres in Texas were set aside for the protection of the habitat of two endangered species.

And the training at Camp Pendleton has been further inhibited by the presence of the tidewater goby, an endangered fish, rare plants and the fairy shrimp, a microscopic crustacean also considered endangered.

Hefley, chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, plans to begin hearings by March 1 to consider a dozen or more environmental issues that the Pentagon has raised. It's not that the military is utterly insensitive to the impact it has on ecosystems. The Defense Department spends about $4 billion a year on environmental programs. A few years ago the Marines Corp initiated a poster campaign series using the phrase "The Marines - We're Saving a Few Good Species" to spark awareness.

The Defense Department makes a reasonable case when it asks for exemptions to environmental rules. And it's not like the military is asking for a lot. Combat training ranges cover a mere 30 million acres across the country. That's only about 1 percent of the entire land area of the continental United States. That leaves a lot of wilderness out there that's not being used by the military.

One of the few constitutional duties of the federal government is to protect the country through a military defense. One of the many duties it has taken on that is not in the Constitution is protecting wildlife. It should be clear which has priority in this conflict.

C.C. Kraemer is a writer living in California.

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