- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

The newest addition to the list of endangered species in this country is the properly trained American soldier. Environmental extremists, and their anti-military allies, are engaged in a legal assault designed to shut down all military training. Without clear leadership from both Congress and the Bush administration to bring some common sense and balance back to environmental regulation, these self-anointed idealogues will succeed in placing the solitude of a few birds ahead of the lives of American soldiers and innocent civilians.

These claims might seem crazy if they were not so sadly true. On June 3, a federal district judge in Washington ordered a halt to all military training on a tiny, uninhabited rock 70 miles north of Saipan in the western Pacific. The training range on Farallon de Medinilla (FDM) is the closest U.S. training range to the current theater of operations in Afghanistan and the last opportunity that Navy and Marine Corps pilots and ships have to train with live ordnance before entering the theater. The range is so critical that the commander of the Seventh Fleet in Japan has stated that without access to FDM, "military readiness would deteriorate to unacceptable levels within six months."

If the judge knew of these serious national-security concerns (which he did) why would he put these lives at risk? The answer lies in a lawsuit brought by the extremist Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). Fresh off of their efforts to block all low-level military flight training in the country, the CBD sued the Navy and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to stop training on FDM, claiming the training threatened a migratory bird in the vicinity. Their weapon in this fight was the 80-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), which was enacted to regulate commercial duck hunting and was never before applied to any agency of the federal government.

The MBTA prohibits the "taking" of any migratory birds (these birds are not endangered, just migratory) without a permit. The catch for the Navy is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is authorized by the act to grant permits to intentionally "take" birds for hunting, scientific study or population control, but not for "unintentional takes" that might occur during training. You heard right, golf courses can get a permit to kill geese intentionally, but the Navy cannot get a permit to train where, despite their best efforts, birds might be unintentionally harmed.

Fortunately, the Bush administration and the House of Representatives have seen how ridiculous, and dangerous, this outcome is and have moved legislation to allow for the kind of limited, unintentional "takes" which might occur during military training. For the safety of all our troops, the Senate should resist the hyperventilating coming from extreme environmental activists and pass this common sense clarification.

Unfortunately, the story does not end with the MBTA. Lawsuits, or the threat of lawsuits, have shutdown or severely restricted realistic training at bases all across the country. Marines in California are not allowed to practice amphibious landings at Camp Pendleton because they might disturb the mud puddles that the endangered fairy shrimp calls home. Soldiers in the Southwest are not allowed to practice night maneuvers because they might not see the desert tortoise. Air Force pilots in Idaho cannot practice low-level combat because the noise might disturb the river runners or the mating habits of elk. Army soldiers in Texas have to use tape to simulate digging foxholes because they might disturb nesting areas of a local bird.

The Department of Defense does not have, nor is it requesting, blanket waivers from environmental regulations. Ironically, the Pentagon is among the best stewards of public lands and resources. Military bases are home to a disproportionate number of endangered species precisely because these areas are well-cared for, lightly impacted and often the last refuge in a sea of local development. What the Pentagon needs, and what Mr. Rumsfeld has asked for, are a few common sense amendments to restore the balance between scientific environmental stewardship and realistic military training.

While these limited measures may be bad news for the few intent on abusing environmental law to shut down military training, the vast majority of Americans will see them as common sense compromises that preserve the environment, while also protecting the lives of those who defend our freedom to have this debate.

Rep. James Hansen, Utah Republican, is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the House Resources Committee.

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