Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico
It hasn’t been the most promising couple of weeks for the military campaign in Iraq. But on another important front, the home front, the Pentagon last week scored a quiet but significant victory over forces trying to undermine U.S. military readiness by restricting the use of training bases and emerging technologies. And a victory in the battle here at home may be critical to ensuring future victories in far-off lands.
Last week’s approval by Congress of the “Range Readiness and Preservation Initiative” grants the Pentagon limited relief from the most extreme provisions of certain environmental laws — including the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act — that put the protection of slugs and bugs above the ability of our fighting men and women to train in real-world conditions and deploy advanced technologies.
The military, though a generally excellent steward of the 25 million acres of public land it manages as bases or ranges, in recent years has grown increasingly concerned about a host of “encroachment” problems that in some cases have curtailed training at certain facilities, and in others restricted the development of advanced technologies believed crucial to maintaining a military edge.
Sometimes such encroachments have come in the form of lawsuits from green groups, claiming this training exercise or that one were harming federally protected turtles or birds, placing a sizable portion of some bases off-limits to any useful activities. Others come courtesy of civilians who choose to live in proximity to military facilities, then protest the noise, dust or occasional inconveniences that come with their housing choice.
Cumulatively, over time, these once-manageable skirmishes have grown into an all-out offensive that threatens to undermine the military’s ability to train as it fights, and give young soldiers, sailors and flyers every possible advantage before sending them into harm’s way.
For years the Pentagon tried to manage these challenges quietly, individually, hoping to placate critics by improving its stewardship over the land it manages. But the lawsuits and protests kept coming, eventually presenting a clear and present danger to the military’s ability to function. Congress, to its credit, has responded to the services’ pleas for help by approving in the last two years some relatively minor adjustments to laws that present the most extreme threat to military readiness.
More specifically, last week’s vote permits military bases to acquire a waiver of “critical habitat” designations mandated by the Endangered Species Act, as long as the facilities negotiate resource management agreements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The ability to negotiate such agreements — which environmental groups have fought in court — has been critical to maintaining normal operations at a number of key military facilities, including California’s Camp Pendleton and Miramar Naval Air Station. Those bases were threatened with paralyzing disruption when as much as 60 percent of both facilities was proposed as critical habitat. Such designations, if allowed to stand, would have made both facilities virtually unusable.
Now bases will be able to work with USFW on plans that will allow species to be protected and training exercises to go on. The law also fine tunes the Marine Mammal Protection Act, whose prohibition on any “harassment” of whales and dolphins (which was interpreted by some as meaning to annoy or disturb them in any way) posed numerous problems for U.S. naval operations. According to the previous definition of harassment, a Navy submarine could run afoul of the law merely by cruising too close to a pod of dolphins or whales.
Environmentalists naturally portrayed the changes as a gutting of environmental laws. That’s wrong-headed thinking, as usual, from these folks.