Endangered Species Envelop Marines in California

Creatures listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) are threatening to surround and shut down the training grounds for the 1st Marine Division, a unit likely to play a key role in any war against Iraq.

The 1st Marine Division, currently deployed in the Persian Gulf area, is based at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, Calif. Environmentalists are trying to impose through litigation a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposal to designate 57% of the territory at that base as “critical habitat” for creatures listed as threatened or endangered under ESA.

As shown in the accompanying chart, these “habitats” nearly envelop the base with land set aside for the safety of plants and animals instead of the safe training of Marines. If Congress does not act this year, training for this Marine Corps division, which specializes in desert warfare, could be severely compromised.

The oldest and most-decorated division of the Marine Corps, the 1st Marine Division led the way in the liberation of Kuwait during the 1991 Desert Storm operation. Now it faces not only a foreign enemy in the form of Saddam Hussein but also a domestic enemy in the form of preferred birds, amphibians and crustaceans and a lawsuit that has been filed to protect them by shutting down training exercises.

In 2000 and 2001, USFWS proposed plans to designate 57% of the base as critical habitat. After the Marine Corps objected, USFWS cut a deal that included exempting the base from the critical habitat designations in return for concessions from the Corps. Environmentalists insisted this was not good enough, and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit to force USFWS to adopt its earlier plan and include Pendleton’s lands in critical habitat designations.

Sliver of Beachfront

“The Marine Corps worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a scientifically and legally based policy that precluded the need to designate critical habitat,” said Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Kelly, deputy commandant for Installations and Logistics, in a February 13 report to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R.-Okla.). Inhofe is the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “This matter is subject to legal challenge by special interests groups. We need a legislative provision that would codify current Fish and Wildlife Service policy.”

Under USFWS’ original plan, six different species would shut down separate, but overlapping, “habitats” on the base. That, together with parts of the facility protected under other designations (such as wetlands), would severely restrict Marine activity on 57% of the base. The six species are the Southwest willow flycatcher, tidewater goby, gnatcatcher, arroyo toad, Riverside fairy shrimp, and San Diego fairy shrimp. Pendleton is home to a total of 18 endangered species.

The designation would take up all but a tiny sliver of Pendleton’s beachfront-a crucial area given that the Marines specialize in amphibious warfare.

“If you take all the training area that we have on the continental United States for the military, it accounts to less than 1% of the total land mass,” Inhofe told HUMAN EVENTS. The senator has a simple solution to the problem caused when environmentalists try to close even these areas for training: He would like to exempt all military training land from environmental laws.

But because even such a commonsense proposal will probably face significant opposition in Congress, the Pentagon is asking instead for just a minimal amount of leeway. Last year, the Pentagon sought limited relaxation of several environmental laws including the ESA, but Congress rejected the requests. It did grant the U.S. military a one-year exemption from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, however. This year, the military is trying again, with the support of Inhofe, who also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We will seek legislative clarification and relief only where required combat training activities are impacted,” Lt. Gen. Kelly wrote in his report. “Of the five large federal land-holding agencies, the Department of Defense land holdings are the smallest. Conversely, Department of Defense lands have more federally listed threatened or endangered species than any other federal land-holding agency.”

Inhofe wants to go beyond the Pentagon’s request. “We need to do considerably more,” he said. But he will face an uphill battle because a number of environmentalist Republican senators are likely to be on the other side.

Pendleton already operates under severe environmental restrictions without the critical habitat designations. “There are 17 miles of beach at Camp Pendleton,” said Kelly. “Due to environmental restrictions and encroachment from other sources, including I-5 that runs parallel to the beach, only 1,500 meters of beach (Red Beach) is available to practice amphibious landings and movement from the beach using the full range of Marine Corps combat vehicles and equipment.”

But even Red Beach suffers from “natural and cultural resource restrictions,” he said. “At Red Beach, only two Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) vehicles can come ashore simultaneously. All military vehicles that come ashore during an amphibious landing are restricted to designated roads.”

“Training is not realistic,” the general included.

Marines trained freely at Camp Pendleton during World War II before they made the amphibious landings in the Pacific that led to the defeat of Japan. But that was in the days before environmentalist lawsuits.


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