TCS Daily

Needed: An Endangered Marines Act

By Dana Joel Gattuso - July 25, 2003 12:00 AM

"Our new radar -- it's a remarkable scientific achievement capable of spotting an intruder in the air at quite a long range... But we can't get permission to put her up [on top of the mountain from] the National Park Service... The Wildlife Preservation Society is raising hell too."

 - the 1970 movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!"


The very idea that laws protecting fish and fowl can stand in the way of military readiness seems like a Hollywood drama. Yet, this plot is playing out today on U.S. military bases. And the General Accounting Office reports that environmental groups are continuously and successfully challenging the Wildlife Services' determinations on critical habitat, "resulting in more and more designations."


According to the Pentagon, federal regulations governing endangered species are the number one obstacle facing defense-training efforts. As the government continues to designate more land for "critical habitat," subject to protection under the Endangered Species Act, a large and growing amount of U.S. military property is off-limits to training and weapons testing. Consider:


  • At Camp Pendleton, California, the only amphibious training base on the West Coast, regulations protecting the tidewater goby fish and other "endangered" and "threatened" species have reduced the amount of beach available to the Marine Corps for training troops for amphibious assaults.


Worse, if the Marines are forced by a pending lawsuit to add the California gnatcatcher and San Diego fairy shrimp to the protected list, over half the base -- 57 percent -- will be hands-off to training and other readiness activities.


  • At the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range in Arizona, the Defense Department ensures before test flights that none of the 100 endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope living on the base is within firing range of any of the seven sortie target areas. If just one antelope is spotted even remotely near a target, that target is eliminated from training. Since the restrictions were imposed in 1997, 40 percent  of live-fire training missions have been cancelled as a result. As Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) put it: "We're faced here with a choice between the Sonoran pronghorn and conducting a realistic training for our men and women... in harm's way."


  • The U.S. Atlantic Fleet at Norfolk, Virginia can only hold live-fire training at sea in the daylight because of endangered marine mammal protection laws. Restrictions also have recently tied up daytime drills. Before Navy fleets and aircraft can begin exercises, they must search the training waters for two hours for visible marine mammals. If any are spotted, the exercises are terminated until the mammal leaves.


These are not isolated cases. Over 300 plants and animals placed on the endangered species list are located on military installations, creating huge headaches for Pentagon officials whose priority is to ready troops for combat. These obstacles will intensify as environmental interest groups continue their aggressive tactics and file more lawsuits against the government to designate more "critical habitat" for endangered species.


For the most part, the Endangered Species Act is not protecting endangered species any more than it is helping our troops preparing for combat. The act has never been responsible for the recovery of an endangered species. Furthermore, evidence shows that "critical habitat" designations are not necessarily beneficial for endangered species. According to Jamie Rappaport Clark, former Clinton administration director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, "In most circumstances, the designation of 'official' critical habitat is of little additional value for most listed species."


Legislation pending in Congress would remove some of the most difficult hurdles to military preparedness while inserting measures to ensure real protection for endangered species. Specifically, legislation would exempt "critical habitat" designations on military lands unless they were determined to be "necessary," or if the military prepares an Integrated Resource Management Plan detailing how they will protect species.


It also directs the Interior Secretary to consider the "impact on national security" when determining critical habitat on military lands, similar to current requirements in the law to consider "economic impact." The Defense Department would still be responsible for preventing the "taking" -- killing, harassing, or harming -- of a listed species, and for consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


The Senate wants to significantly water down these improvements, and the skirmish between the two chambers for final legislation will take place in the days ahead. But until real changes are made to existing environmental laws that increasingly impede the training of troops and testing of weapons, military readiness may be becoming seriously endangered.


The author is a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research.

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