- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

House Republicans are set to exempt the military from stringent environmental laws for the war on terrorism, angering Democrats and green groups who say the Defense Department should not be above the law.

The exemption language was contained in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2003, which overwhelmingly passed the House Armed Services Committee 57-1 late Wednesday and was expected to pass the full House next week.

The provision prevents future designations of critical habitat for rare species on military installations where protection plans are already in place. In areas where such restrictions are under consideration, the secretary of the Interior Department would have to first weigh the impact on national security.

The measure also allows the military to accidentally kill any bird species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act while engaged in training activities.

"The ability of the Department of Defense to fulfill its primary mission to safeguard national security has been dramatically challenged and in some instances diminished due to its obligations to satisfy several important federal environmental laws," said Rep. Joel Hefley, Colorado Republican and sponsor of the measure.

Examples of conflicts between environmental laws and military training include:

•A federal court issued a 30-day injunction banning the military from conducting any kind of training on Farallon de Medinilla in the Northern Marianas Islands, the Guam Pacific Daily News reported last night. The Center for Biological Diversity filed suit in 2000 against the Navy and the Department of Defense to end live-fire training exercises, claiming it violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

•Marines can train in California's Mojave Desert only during the daytime so as not to trample tortoises. Live or simulated fire is off-limits, and vehicles must stay on the roads.

•Training for amphibious landing is severely restricted at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina because of beach restrictions during turtle-nesting season, and a rare species of woodpecker makes inland training nearly impossible.

•Lawsuits to protect a tree snail shut down Hawaii's Makua Military Reservation in 1998, and the snowy plover has severely restricted Navy SEAL training on Coronado Island in California.

"I have tried to strike the balance between compliance with these important environmental laws and the need to allow our troops to adequately prepare and train. I am confident that these provisions will provide meaningful assistance to the department, while still ensuring that existing safeguards to the environment are not adversely impacted," Mr. Hefley said.

While supporting the overall defense authorization, Democrats will announce their opposition to the environmental exemption next week.

Environmental groups and several House Democrats led by Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan are planning a Tuesday press conference.

They say President Bush already has the power to waive environmental requirements when necessary to protect national security, and will offer an amendment to strike the provision.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has initiated a letter-writing campaign to Congress, saying the Bush administration wants a blanket exemption from environmental laws, even when national security is not an issue.

Earthjustice also opposes the exemption, saying it will result in "irreparable harm to the environment."

"While we support U.S. military efforts to prepare for military action and to protect national security, additional exemptions are not necessary to accomplish this goal," said spokeswoman Sandra Schubert.

"We firmly believe no government should be above the law including the laws that protect America's wildlife and public lands," Miss Schubert said.

The bill language specifies that nothing will diminish the obligation of the Defense Department to comply with the Endangered Species Act, which makes it illegal to harm or cause the extinction of a threatened or endangered species.

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