- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Congressional negotiators have apparently reached a fair balance between birds and bombs on the defense authorization bill. According to reports, House and Senate conferees have agreed to permit the Department of Defense permanent exceptions from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) for the accidental "taking" of birds during military training exercises.

It's a much needed provision, particularly since MBTA restrictions have begun to restrict military readiness. In May, a federal judge issued a 30-day injunction shutting down live-fire exercises in Farallon de Medinilla (FDM), a tiny Pacific atoll just north of Guam that the Navy uses for live-fire exercises, on the grounds that such training threatened migratory birds. The Navy closes its bombardment range at San Clemente Island for half the week during the breeding season of the endangered loggerhead shrike, and it spends $2.4 million each year to protect the bird. Across the board, Defense spends an estimated $4 billion each year to comply with environmental laws.

There are other examples of the military's failure to find a balance between birds and bombs. At Camp Lejeune, N.C., training for amphibious landings has been severely restricted because of the presence of a rare species of woodpecker. SEAL training on California's Coronado Island has been restricted due to the presence of the snowy plover. In Texas, Army soldiers must simulate digging foxholes lest their shovels disrupt bird nests.

Rep. Nick Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the Resources Committee, alleged that the hoped-for compromise "could give the DOD license to bomb and destroy at will the natural habitats of migratory birds." However, the provision only pertains to accidental takings in the course of training exercises, and comes with the caveat that the DOD spend a year studying how to minimize such adverse impacts. Moreover, the MBTA already allows federal permits for the accidental removal of birds for economic or safety reasons. Nowhere is it alleged that those exceptions have endangered species of migratory birds.

Ultimately, national interests are better preserved by thoroughly preparing soldiers to go into harm's way than by protecting at all costs migratory birds that might inadvertently fly into it. Congressional negotiators should go through with the MBTA compromise being bandied about, as it seems to strike the proper balance between birds and bombs.

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