- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000

FORT IRWIN, Calif. What may be one of the most formidable threats to national security today has a craggy face, scaly arms and, well, he likes a little grass now and then.
Soldiers on this Army training center's battlefield are instructed to drop their weapons and call a commander when the 12-inch-round desert tortoise listed by federal environmentalists as threatened crawls out of its hole and onto this 1,000-square-mile compound at the edge of the Mojave Desert.
"When the desert tortoise is spotted, it brings things to a screeching halt," said W.M. "Mickey" Quillman of the Army's environmental division at Fort Irwin. War games, marches and drills all fall under the thunder of the tortoise.
This benign creature has for 15 years thwarted the Army's effort to expand the reservation, which lies about an hour from the nearest town of Barstow, Calif. The expansion plans, which would allow the Army to use its constantly evolving technology, land right in the sandy front yard of Mr. Tortoise.
"National security is a factor here," said Brig. Gen. James D. Thurman, commanding general at Fort Irwin. "We cannot afford to get our training wrong. If we can't train the way we're going to fight, well, you sure don't want to find out you forgot something during battle."
Since 1985, when the Army realized that its technology had more range than its training grounds, there have been studies, closed-door meetings and acrimonious murmuring from both environmentalists and the military.
All over the future of a tortoise whose habitat extends from Utah to Mexico. The Army says it has accidentally killed an average of four tortoises a year for the past 10 years.
"The Army knows more about that tortoise than anybody else," said John Gifford, program manager of the land-acquisition program here. "We spend a lot of money on that tortoise; we're a friend of the tortoise"
Environmentalists see such claims as hypocritical. "Well, let's destroy 15 to 20 percent of its habitat and call ourselves its friend," said Michael Connor of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee, a group dedicated to buying land for the species.
Mr. Connor charges that the Army has co-opted the land acquisition process by not holding public hearings.
He also disputed the military's commitment to preserving the tortoise. Were the tortoise to go away, "I'm sure that would solve a lot of problems for a lot of people."

Irked environmentalists

The idea that 642,730 acres is woefully inadequate to play war on rankles environmentalists in a big way. Procuring $19 million in governmental funds to expand an additional 153,000 acres, as the Army did last year, incites further ire.
"Their reasons for expansion change seasonally," said Elden Hughes, chairman of the Sierra Club's California/Nevada committee. "First they tell us their guns shoot farther. Then they tell us they have more armored vehicles. Whatever it is, they need more land. Well, I can put a tank out there that can shoot to L.A. Do they want that land?"
Who wouldn't want a piece of the Mojave? It is some of the most pristine desert in the world, a 35 million-acre sanctuary of sand and sun and endless, rolling rocks. In the summer, the average temperature is 111 roasting degrees. It is frequently the hottest place in North America.
Coyotes saunter freely along the dusty roads, and red and purple mesas stand watch over the desert floor. About 100 wild burros also call the place home.
And so does the tortoise, whose numbers are estimated at between 93,000 and several hundred thousand.
Fort Irwin was designated in 1981 as the nation's largest training facility of its kind, and soldiers from all over fly in during the year to engage in the most realistic battle training available.
"This is where you come when you are ready to get the best battle training because it can most replicate the real thing," said Maj. Rob Ali, a public affairs officer at the center. "People come here, train under combat conditions for two weeks, then end up coming back later for more."
About 359,000 acres of the center is usable for maneuvers. Dry lake beds and mountain ranges are unnavigable, and 22,000 acres at the south end are already off limits because of the tortoise.
The rest is a commander's playground. Desert Storm, that episode of "Star Wars" combat, was won because of Fort Irwin and its massive battle theater, Gen. Thurman said.
To that, Mr. Hughes of the Sierra Club responds: "Fort Irwin is fighting a war that it already won."

The biggest battle

The battle at Fort Irwin illustrates the quandary of peacetime America: Bigger guns are good, military strategists say, while those who live near the training centers and outposts join hands with environmentalists in pointing to prosperity and hoping that weapons won't soon be needed.
In fact, the dearth of training grounds may be the military's biggest problem right now.
"There are several reasons for this," said retired Army Col. Hal Fuller, who was stationed for some of his career at Fort Irwin. "There is a lack of knowledge on the part of the public, where they say, 'You already have enough land why do you need more?' "
But the environmentalists, he conceded, have a point. "They feel [the land is] not compatible with tank maneuvering, and they're right to an extent."
The Defense Department controls 17 million acres of U.S. land, down from 30 million acres during World War II. The federal government owns about 30 percent of the country's total land.
And the fight for space is one the military appears to be losing.
A spate of lawsuits in Idaho last year forced the Air Force to limit flights over canyons favored by wilderness enthusiasts.
And in California, the Marine Corps has lost training airspace to commercial air traffic. San Diego's Lindbergh Field airport recently took over a 29-acre outdoor obstacle course at the Marines' West Coast recruit training depot.
At Fort Irwin, a frequent refrain "We don't just run over everything out there," said Col. Florian K. Rothbrust has failed to thwart opposition.

A solution?

An end to the fight over Fort Irwin has been forecast many times. Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis, whose district includes the training center, is again ready to introduce legislation that would break the stalemate.
He is chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee and a strident defender of Fort Irwin expansion.
"We need to maintain this," Mr. Lewis said. "We have to have the strength to maintain our leadership" as a country.
"And there are those who claim that this resistance is part of an organized effort of the environmental community and people in these other agencies with zero growth ideas. But organized or unorganized, it's a threat to security," he said.
Federal agencies show little sympathy for the Army's reported land shortage.
"It is not in our purview to make a determination related to national security," said the Bureau of Land Management's Tim Salt, who is California desert district manager. "Ours is to make sure the Endangered Species Act is complied with."
For $400 million, the Army could take the land it wants and possibly eliminate adverse effects on the desert tortoise population, according to a study conducted earlier this year by 12 biologists from different camps involved in the dispute.
The Army says the $400 million price tag given in the study is unrealistic. "That may be for what they want to do, but it's not what the Army is doing," said Marcia S. Wertenberger, corporate counsel for the Army's expansion bid.
Parts of the study are incorporated in a draft bill the Army submitted in July to the Office of Management and Budget. The proposal details plans for conservation of the tortoise and would establish a 100-square-mile preserve under the direction of the Army.
"We believe that the White House is committed to doing something on this," said Jim Specht, communications director for Mr. Lewis.
Three biologists refused to go along with the study's recommendations, including Ray Bransfield, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Can the impact of this be mitigated?" Mr. Bransfield asked. "The answer I get is no, and there is no price tag on that. The analogy I use is that someone says let me cut off your head and I'll give you a nice manicure."

Competing claims

The Army states its case these days with reams of paper devoted to an endeavor that is on the tongues of everyone at the base.
It argues that Desert Storm confirmed the need to train in a spacious training theater. They also point out that in 1981, when the training center opened, weapons could engage an enemy at ranges of 1 mile to 12 miles. Today, that range has increased to as much as 60 miles.
Opponents have some of their answers to the problem.
"The only way for the Army to get past this land issue is to use simulation," said Mr. Hughes of the Sierra Club. "But Fort Irwin doesn't want to talk about that."
The Army begrudgingly uses simulation, which involves creating a conflict scenario without actually engaging.
Mr. Bransfield, the biologist, concedes the Army has a problem, but says, "It would also be difficult for any biologist not to understand our concern. We want to continue the ecosystem."
The Army believes that "we are the best stewards of that land," Gen. Thurman said. "Look at our acres, and you won't see any junk or trash, then compare it with the rest of the desert."
Back and forth it goes, for 15 years, to the point where something is going to become extinct.
"Maybe soldiers will become the next endangered species," ventured one infantryman.

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