- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

We hope that our soldiers are as well-prepared as possible now that they are in combat in Iraq. But, thanks to the environmental strictures that have impaired sometimes dramatically the realistic training so needed before battle, proper training of our forces has been made more difficult than is necessary.

While anecdotal evidence has been alarming enough, the Marine Corps conducted an extensive study of the impact that environmental restrictions were having on combat readiness at Fort Pendleton Calif., as specifically applied to three combat elements: mortar teams, light armored reconnaissance platoons and artillery batteries. Those combat elements were only able to achieve 69 percent of the established standards for non-firing field training exercises. Marines even face restrictions on that most basic and most necessary of field actions digging foxholes. As Gen. William Nyland, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, told the Senate Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support, "Digging fighting holes … is severely constrained at Camp Pendleton due to the presence of endangered species and habitat."

Critical habitat designations have had a disturbing impact on training exercises, since they can be applied even when the species itself is absent. Gen. John M. Keane, vice chief of staff for the Army, told the Senate of the situation in Fort Lewis, Wash., where more than 70 percent of the land is considered a critical habitat for the northern spotted owl. The owl itself is not a resident. The situation is even worse at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. There, 22,000 acres of land have been named a critical habitat for the desert tortoise, cutting 22,000 acres of training area that the Army needs to conduct realistic maneuver exercises.

The Pentagon has requested relief, asking lawmakers to pass the Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative (RRPI). Under the RRPI, the Pentagon's environmental mandates would come from the Sikes Act which requires soldiers to integrate environmental protection with combat preparations rather than the hodgepodge of strict environmental mandates that now govern training exercises.

It's worth remembering that each branch of the service spends millions of dollars each year to comply with environmental regulations. The Army is even attempting to develop environmentally friendly green bullets. As Gen. Nyland said, "Our goal is to establish the appropriate balance between our … responsibility to be combat ready at all times and our additional environmental compliance and stewardship responsibilities."

While the enjoyment and preservation of natural species is the primary goal of natural parks and wilderness reserves, the primary goal of military bases is to prepare soldiers for combat. That goal is currently being impaired, and sometimes completely impeded, by existing environmental laws.

That our soldiers need top-of-the-line training, unencumbered by environmental strictures, has never been more obvious. Congress should act quickly on the Pentagon's initiative.

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