Environmental Regulations Impede Pentagon Readiness

Published March 1, 2003

With the United States in the second year of its war on terrorism, the nation’s ability to prepare troops for the deadly business of combat is being undermined by environmental restrictions being applied to military bases around the country.

Lawsuits brought by such groups as the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council have sought to impose the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Marine Mammals Protection Act, and other environmental statutes on military bases. The lawsuits, and the restrictions on training that result from them, have come in direct conflict with military readiness:

  • Wide areas of the ocean beach at the Navy’s amphibious base at Coronado, California have been designated as “critical habitat” for two species of shore birds, the Western plover and the least tern. When Navy Seals practice landing their rubber boats during breeding season, they must disrupt their tactical formations to move in narrow lanes, marked by green tape, to avoid disturbing potential nests. The result is what the Navy calls “negative training”–the development of bad habits that, if repeated in combat, will cause casualties.
  • At Fort Hood, Texas, unit commanders are forced to “work around” 66,000 acres, or one-third of the training area, to protect the habitat of the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo. The restrictions placed on soldiers’ training reduce the realism of combat exercises and makes them less prepared to cope with real battlefield situations.
  • At Camp Pendleton near San Diego, California, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposed designating more than 57 percent of the base’s 125,000 acres as critical habitat for the endangered California gnat-catcher. That designation, coupled with existing environmental restrictions at Camp Pendleton, would have rendered the base virtually unusable for realistic combat training. Ultimately, the Clinton administration decided not to designate new critical habitat at Camp Pendleton–a decision currently being challenged by environmental groups in court.

ESA Particularly Problematic

These examples, to which dozens more could be added, underscore the problems the armed services are facing. The Endangered Species Act is particularly crippling. The courts have held that, under the ESA, critical habitat is intended for species recovery. Rather than military lands being used for military purposes, once critical habitat is designated, such lands must be used first for species recovery. With each lawsuit filed by an environmental group under the ESA, more military land threatens to come under the jurisdiction of the statute.

The Department of Defense manages more than 450 installations on some 25 million acres in the U.S., providing sanctuary to roughly 300 species listed as threatened or endangered. Ironically, it is the Defense Department’s good stewardship of its lands that has attracted the species … and the lawsuits. This, of course, is the fate private landowners have suffered for decades.

Instead of being subjected to the ESA, the Pentagon would like to continue its practice of protecting species on military installations through Integrated Natural Resources Management Plans (INRMPs), which are required under the Sikes Act and developed in close cooperation with the Department of Interior and state wildlife agencies. This approach has been endorsed by both the Clinton and the Bush administrations. The widespread presence of threatened and endangered species on military bases attests to the effectiveness of INRMPs.

Environmental groups opposed to the Pentagon’s approach point out the President already has the authority under certain environmental statutes to waive environmental requirements in case of war or national emergency. However, many environmental statutes do not provide for wartime waivers, and in most that do the President may apply national security exceptions only if doing so is deemed to be in the “paramount interest” of the United States–the highest standard in the nation’s laws.

Moreover, notes the Pentagon, military readiness requires training and testing at all times– not just during national emergencies. Rather than expecting the President to micro-manage training decisions at scores of military bases around the country, the Pentagon argues, those decisions are best left in the hands of local commanders.

In Congress’s Court

Last summer, the Pentagon approached Congress seeking clarification of several environmental statutes, so that it might carry out its unique mission of providing for the nation’s defense.

Faced with midterm elections and a rapidly disappearing congressional calendar, lawmakers last year provided only limited relief by making some adjustments to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The action will allow the Navy to continue to use a tiny uninhabited island in the Western Pacific as a firing range.

This year, however, the Department of Defense is taking a much more aggressive stance, hoping a Republican-controlled Congress will lend the armed services a more sympathetic ear.

Ultimately, Congress will have to answer two questions: If soldiers are not allowed to train for combat under realistic conditions in areas specifically set aside for that purpose, where is that training supposed to take place? And if weapons cannot be tested under realistic conditions in areas specifically set aside for that purpose, where is that testing supposed to take place?

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.