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Environmentalist Overkill Threatens Military Lives By: Harold Johnson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, March 20, 2003

Will soldiers and Marines die in the Persian Gulf so gnatcatchers and other federally protected birds and animals may live?

Rigid application of environmental laws -- spurred by lobbying and lawsuits from "green" groups that are stronger on zeal than common sense -- risks lives by undermining military readiness.

In outposts across the country, cumbersome land use rules give Osama and Saddam reason to smile. At Fort Hood, Texas, use of camouflage netting is limited for the sake of protected birds. In Arizona, practice bombing runs are cancelled when antelope wander within five kilometers of a target area. Night maneuvers in the Southwest have gone the way of the dodo in deference to desert tortoises. Low-level combat flying in Idaho has ended so elk can mate undisturbed.

Species safeguards are particularly subversive at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. Pendleton is the West Coast's largest training facility with 125,000 acres stretching from the ocean to the Santa Ana Mountains. Leathernecks trained here for the Iwo Jima invasion and many major deployments since. The Corps' oldest and most decorated division, the 1st Marine Division, now assigned to the Persian Gulf, calls Pendleton home.

Tojo's warriors couldn't humble Pendleton's finest, but environmentalist shock troops are giving it their own shot.

new lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council would bar exercises near "critical habitats" for six species, including the gnatcatcher (a small insect eating bird), the tidewater goby and the arroyo toad. When added to areas already off limits, the new restrictions will put nearly 60 percent of Pendleton out of commission.

Already, such staples of training as the digging of foxholes have been cut back. Amphibious assaults at Pendleton's Red Beach can't simulate the stress of battle when Marines, once they've disembarked, are required to board buses to their next point of engagement so gnatcatchers will be kept out of harm's way. And how can jarheads prepare for rough Middle Eastern terrain when they're forbidden from veering off designated roads at Pendleton?

Training at the camp is now "not realistic," thanks to regulatory overkill.   So contends Marine Lt. Gen. Richard Kelly, deputy commandant for Installations and Logistics, in a February 13 letter to Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "There are 17 miles of beach at Camp Pendleton," Kelly notes, but species-related restrictions, along with other encroachments, result in only "1,500 meters of beach [being] available to practice amphibious landings and movement from the beach using the full range of Marine Corps combat vehicles and equipment."

The Bush Administration is responding by asking Congress to give the military some exemptions from several environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act.  Pentagon officials stress that they're not seeking carte blanche to ignore protected species, only latitude for "holistic" formulas to accommodate both species and essential training.

Their argument is compelling. But why should some intelligent leeway be allowed only to Uncle Sam? Private property owners have also had to put up with irrational and inflexible environmental rules for years. When the Endangered Species Act countenances sloppiness and overreaching in adding new animals and birds to the list and cordoning off more acreage, it's not just the military that loses. Houses aren't built, jobs aren't created. Economic growth is held hostage.

Under the current regulatory scheme, bureaucrats don't have to commission new studies of a species' status before ordering that more land lie dormant for "habitat." Federal designation of sprawling reaches of Southern California for the gnatcatcher -- from Pendleton's beaches far inland to privately owned terrain -- has gone forward in defiance of evidence that this bird is not endangered.  Studies have found it genetically indistinguishable from birds that thrive in abundance south of the Mexican border, and yet the feds and radical environmentalists insist on protecting it at the price of punishing humans.

Why should this siege against science and good sense be lifted only when and where it impacts the military?

The armed forces could burnish their credentials as freedom's defenders if they fought this battle on a broader front.   If  a balanced approach to environmentalism makes sense, it makes sense not just for those in uniform, but also for the civilians whose liberties they're pledged to protect.

Harold Johnson is an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation.

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