Strange but true: Many of the last 58 Sonoran desert pronghorn antelope in the United States live on Arizona's Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range. The Marines' Camp Pendleton harbors some of Southern California's last coastal sage uplands, its last free-running river, and estuaries providing habitat for many endangered fish, crustaceans, and birds. Northern Florida's Eglin Air Force Base has trees predating Columbus, endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, and rare snakes and turtles.
The Department of Defense owns 25 million acres across the United States, a landmass the size of Kentucky, but only a fraction is used for live-fire exercises; much of the rest is buffer. Thus the department's lands -- increasingly hemmed in by civilian homes, malls, and highways -- have become accidental paradises for wildlife. They are home to some 600 rare plants and animals, including 20 percent of all federally listed species -- more than our national parks.
These landscapes are now endangered. Since 9/11, civilian leaders in the Pentagon and some senior uniformed officers have claimed that conservation and national security do not mix, and they have attacked laws that protect wildlife and habitat on military bases. It appears that yet another front in an overall war against conservation has been opened. "Our leaders are taking advantage of the fear of war and terrorism," says Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in Tucson. "It's a cynical calculation to get off the hook for protecting what they say we are fighting for -- our land."
The military has polluted thousands of acres with rocket fuel, lead bullets, and explosives; its lands host 136 Superfund sites designated for cleanup. However, in the 1990s, Congress made it clear that environmental laws do apply to military bases. Since then, the Department of Defense has spent close to $4 billion a year on cleanups and a total of almost $400 million to protect rare species under the Endangered Species Act. The military "manages its lands as well as anyone when it's ordered to -- it's like an order to take a hill," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Some officers, however, have chafed under these rules, arguing that they detract from the realism of training. At Goldwater, bombing runs are moved or canceled if antelope are spotted. At Pendleton, amphibious landings must avoid seasonal pools inhabited by endangered fairy shrimp. The nation's most precious asset is "our sons and daughters," Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Wayne Arny told a congressional hearing in 2003, and environmental restrictions diminished their ability to "fight, survive, and win." However, only a few months earlier a General Accounting Office report found that the military had done little to demonstrate its case that training standards were being jeopardized. Christine Todd Whitman, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, told Congress she knew of "no training mission anywhere in the country that is being held up or not taking place because of environmental protection regulation."
But the remarks by Arny and others were merely early shots in a larger campaign. Shortly before Arny's speech, the Pentagon convinced lawmakers to ease the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 to legalize the occasional killing of birds during bombing practice. In early 2003, leaked memos from Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Readiness Paul Mayberry and then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz outlined a "comprehensive approach" to rolling back all environmental laws applying to the military. The memos were aimed at not only the Endangered Species Act -- traditionally the target of the military's complaints -- but the nation's basic anti-pollution laws: the statutes governing toxic waste, including the Superfund law, along with the Clean Air, Clean Water, Noise Control, and Safe Drinking Water acts.
That same year the Pentagon convinced Congress to amend the Endangered Species Act to remove the Fish and Wildlife Service's power to designate so-called critical habitat for endangered species on bases, allowing the military to develop its own protection plans. This did not relieve bases of the obligation to protect rare species -- the aim of earlier and more drastic draft proposals -- but it did "make the process less transparent, so it will be harder to know if something is going wrong," says Brian Nowicki, a conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Since then, the Pentagon has come back every year with proposals to exempt munitions and their constituents from toxics laws, cap the military's liability for cleanups, and allow bases to evade clean-air standards. The latest, floated in March, would even exempt toxic substances that migrate off-base and pollute civilian land. So far, Congress has resisted these requests.
The battleground now may be shifting to the more subterranean venues of budgets, regulations, and directives. In April 2005, Wolfowitz replaced a Clinton-era mission statement charging the military with "reducing risk to human health" and "protect[ing] the environment" with one that recognizes environmental issues only when they "sustain the national defense." Civilian biologists who work on bases say conservation money is drying up. Base closures overseas may put more pressure on military lands as soldiers are transferred home. Also, "constraints on garrison staff are enormous today," says Bert Bivings, a former Navy helicopter pilot who is now a wildlife biologist at Fort McPherson, Georgia. New hiring rules may keep conservation managers from filling jobs without authorization from the top -- and there the attitude seems all too clear.
-- Kevin Krajick
New York City-based writer Kevin Krajick specializes in science and the environment.