The Defense Authorization’s Mission Creep

Credit: Pacific Southwest Region USFWS / Flickr

There are not many things in Washington about which our two parties consistently agree, but the need to pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is one of them.

So they say.

As the primary legislation to set defense policy and authorize defense spending, the NDAA is must-pass. It’s one of the obligations Congress must meet each year, and they’ve successfully done so for over 50 years without fail. But we’ve seen a disturbing trend recently: our elected representatives approach their responsibilities with flippancy, putting at risk our military’s ability to effectively provide for the common defense. Recognizing that the NDAA is must-pass legislation, they use it as a vehicle to push their otherwise untenable pet priorities via riders that no thinking citizen would consider germane. This abuse of process is an affront to its bipartisan history and the integrity of the distinguished Armed Services Committees. The defense bill should be left for defense.

Instead, we’ve seen proposed a parade of egregious anti-environmental riders that’d serve to undermine the crucial protections in place for our wildlife, our wild lands, and the climate. As Congress begins the process to write the NDAA for fiscal year 2017, it’s worth reviewing a few of the worst provisions ultimately stripped from past iterations that could, and in some cases have, appeared again.

Wildlife & Wild Lands

The Endangered Species Act is a perennial target for conservative lawmakers. Last year, for instance, Utah’s Representative, Rob Bishop, painted a stakeholder driven landscape-scale conservation planning process that was embraced across 11 Western states to protect greater sage grouse as an impediment to national security, hoping to nullify it via the NDAA. That conservation planning process will help protect the bird’s habitat throughout the West with the goal of precluding the need for a listing under the Endangered Species Act. If this rider could not be any more cynical in its nature, the sage-grouse language was also a Trojan horse in advancing Rep. Bishop’s ongoing agenda to privatize millions of acres of public lands. For not only does the rider preclude sage-grouse conservation efforts, it would allow Western governors to veto federal land management decisions in the entirety of the sage-grouse planning area, however tangentially related to sage-grouse.

Thankfully last year, reason prevailed over ideological crusades. The Department of Defense made it clear that sage grouse planning efforts were simply not a national security issue, and the species did not have a demonstrable effect on training and readiness operations. Hence the rider was stripped in the Senate before final passage of the NDAA in 2016. In fact, just this year, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness, the Army, the Navy and the Airforce have all unambiguously stated that the sage grouse will not impact military readiness and do not require legislation. Former military members have said the same. Nevertheless, Congressman Bishop has once again embedded a similar sage-grouse rider into this year’s 2017 NDAA legislation, attempting to undo these broadly supported efforts, gutting federal land protections, and putting the iconic species at risk.

Sage grouse are only one example in a long list of anti-wildlife riders. Members of Congress attempted to use the NDAA to undermine endangered species protections for the American burying beetle and the lesser prairie-chicken, despite dramatic declines in both populations. And although the illegal ivory trade is known to help fund African terrorist networks, measures to stem elephant and rhino poaching were placed on the chopping block. All of these harmful riders could easily reemerge this year, and we may end up seeing a few new ones, like provisions that would strip protections for the desert tortoise and the Mexican wolf.

In addition to Bishop’s sage-grouse language, legislators have also used the defense bill to assault America’s rightful ownership of public lands. Last year, they offered a land grab provision that would have permanently withdrawn thousands of acres of public lands from protections in Alaska, Nevada, and New Mexico, circumvented environmental review, and set a dangerous precedent of allowing public lands to be potentially sold to private entities instead of being returned to the public. Another provision would have transferred 800,000 acres of Nevada’s Desert National Wildlife Refuge to the military, despite no call from the Defense Department for these lands. These activities show no signs of abating and this year could see even more amendments to transfer publically owned lands to private interests, including pristine wildlife refuges and sensitive ecosystems.

Climate Change

Finally, the NDAA has been regularly used to repeal climate protections like Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Section 526 is a low-cost, common sense provision that simply requires any alternative fuels purchased by federal agencies be less polluting than conventional fuel.  This provision does not ban fuels as critics falsely claim. It simply requires high carbon fuel producers to reduce their emissions so that they are similar to those of conventional fuels before constructing projects through federal awards. It is both fair and customary to ask those who profit from taxpayer funds to reduce the damage they inflict upon taxpayers. The Department of Defense has repeatedly stated that Section 526 has not harmed readiness in any way. Still, some members of Congress have tried to repeal it every year, opting for culture war and climate denial over serious legislating.

The NDAA’s long history of bipartisan success is increasingly jeopardized by those who abuse it for anti-environmental ends. Making this bill a free for all of anti-environmental activity devalues the committee’s work and invites unnecessary controversy. This should be an instrument to set defense policy, not wipe vulnerable species from the planet or transfer pristine public lands to private interests. 

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