Environmental Restrictions Hamper Training of U.S. Troops

Strict adherence to the Endangered Species Act and other federal environmental laws and regulations may endanger American military forces facing combat overseas by restricting the ability of these forces to undergo realistic training here.

Even in the face of a possible invasion of Iraq, Congress largely ignored Pentagon requests that military training facilities be partially exempted from environmental laws that hamper the training of American warriors.

In November, Congress passed a conference report on the Defense Department authorization bill that did not include most of what the Pentagon asked for in this area.

Civilian and uniformed military leaders had pushed for the environmental changes earlier this year. On May 16, Paul Mayberry, deputy under secretary of Defense for readiness, and Raymond DuBois, deputy under secretary of Defense for installations and environment, submitted joint testimony to the House Armed Service Subcommittee on Military Readiness. “The most fundamental military readiness principle is that we must train as we intend to fight,” they said. Examples of military training hobbled by environmental restrictions abound:

  • “When Navy SEALs land on the beaches at Naval Base Coronado, Calif., during nesting season, they have to disrupt their tactical formations to move in narrow lanes, marked by green tape, to avoid disturbing potential nests of the Western snowy plover and California least tern,” testified Mayberry and DuBois.
  • “In Massachusetts, in order to protect Cape Cod’s sole-source aquifer, the Army National Guard troops can no longer conduct live-fire training on the Massachusetts Military Reservation, and instead travel hundreds of miles to alternate locations,” they said.
  • The Air Force’s Goldwater Range in southern Arizona pays $300,000 a year to biologists to monitor the movements of the endangered sonoran pronghorn antelope. “In the past three years, more than 30% of the scheduled live drop missions were either cancelled or moved to alternate target areas” because of the pronghorn, said Air Force Gen. Donald Cook in congressional testimony March 12.
  • The San Diego Union-Tribune reported September 26 that “Staff Sgt. Mike Housewright and his amphibious platoon . . . must assault the beaches of [the Marines’] Camp Pendleton while sidestepping the nesting grounds of the small, white-gray plover and other birds protected by federal law as threatened or endangered species. . . . ‘To come ashore and stop is tactically unsound,’ said retired Maj. Gen. David Bice, who recently stepped down as Camp Pendleton’s commanding general. ‘They are just sitting ducks.’” These now-restricted beaches are where Marines practiced for Iwo Jima during World War II. “Wildlife and habitat preservation regulations force amphibious planners to execute tactically unsound plans,” Col. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of a Marine Expeditionary Unit at Pendleton, told the House Committee on Government Reform on May 16.
  • Camp Pendleton, host to 40,000 Marines, has additional problems. “In the training environment we encounter in southern California, off-road movement and maneuver using our Light Armored Vehicles, tanks and Humvees is severely restricted,” Waldhauser told Congress. “To be frank, we are not providing our drivers, small unit leaders, and commanders with realistic training in this fundamental aspect of modern combat.” Marine spokesman Capt. Stewart Upton said, “Currently, only about 65% of large exercise tasks can be completed at Camp Pendleton.”
  • The Army says of Ft. Irwin (Calif.), “The National Training Center (NTC) is the only instrumented training facility in the world that is suitable for force-on-force and live fire training of heavy brigade-sized military forces.” Unfortunately, testified Capt. Jason Amerine at the same hearing as Waldhauser, “We must train around a host of other encroachment issues, such as moratoriums on digging fighting positions or restrictions on land use due to the presence of endangered species such as the desert tortoise. . . . We cannot expect soldiers to learn during war, what we ought to teach them during training.”
  • In March, a federal judge ordered the Navy to stop bombing at its range in the Northern Mariana Islands because migratory birds were being killed. Training has resumed pending further legal wrangling.
  • On October 31, federal Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte ordered the Navy not to use its new low-frequency sonar, designed to monitor the movements of almost-undetectable submarines through large stretches of ocean, because the sonar might bother whales and other marine mammals.
  • Instead of exempting or at least granting greater flexibility to the Pentagon under the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and other environmental laws, Congress provided some relief from only the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects 850 species of migrating birds. The conference report exempts the military from the bird act for a year while the Defense and Interior departments work out a compromise that is supposed to protect training and birds at the same time.

    Soon, said Upton, environmentalists’ lawsuits could produce much bigger headaches by shutting down even more training. “It seems likely a court will soon direct U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat on military lands,” he said.

    Military Readiness — For The Birds

    Naval Base Coronado, Navy (Calif.) Western Snowy Plover, California Least Tern SEALs distort training exercises to avoid birds.
    Massachusetts Military Reservation Aquifer National Guard travels hundreds of miles to train elsewhere
    Barry Goldwater Range, Air Force (Ariz.) Sonoran Pronghorn Antelope About one-third of live-fire exercises canceled to avoid pronghorn.
    Air Station Yuma, Marines (Ariz.) Sonoran Pronghorn Antelope Marines alter bombing exercises to protect pronghorn.
    Camp Pendleton, Marines (Calif.) Western Snowy Plover, Desert Tortoise Marines cancel or alter exercises to avoid birds and tortoises.
    Ft. Irwin, Army (Calif.) Desert Tortoise Army brigades restricted in digging defense ditches, other land uses.
    Mariana Islands Bombing Range, Navy Micronesian Megapode, other birds Navy has stopped bombing in deference to birds.