Congress Split Over Pentagon's Duty to Wildlife

By J.R. Pegg

May 23, 2003 (ENS) - When the Bush administration submitted its 2004 military spending bill, it asked Congress to exempt the Department of Defense from five major environmental laws. The administration says complying with these statutes is compromising the U.S. military's training and readiness, yet Congress has fully rejected three of its five requests - the exemptions from two hazardous waste laws and the Clean Air Act.

The House bill, passed Thursday along with the Senate version, still offers the military broad exemptions from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), but the complete removal of three of the exemptions represents a major victory for environmentalists, who rallied the opposition of a broad array of state officials, members of Congress and the general public to battle the exemptions.

"To win politically on as much as we have done against a Pentagon using the guise and afterglow of the war victory to overreach shows the strength of the environmental community and that the American people and a lot of American soldiers believe in strong environmental protection," said Bill Frymoyer, director of public policy at National Environmental Trust.

The remaining concern largely centers on the House's version of the military spending bill, which fully embraces the administration's requests for broad exemption from the ESA and the MMPA. sonoranpronghorncalf

Conservationist say endangered species with critical habitat on military lands, such as the Sonoran Pronghorn, could be the losers if the Pentagon gets its desired exemption to the Endangered Species Act. (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)
The Senate bill contains only a restrained exemption from the ESA and differences between the competing bills could prove contentious when the two bodies iron out their differences in the coming months.

The Bush administration asked Congress to prohibit ESA critical habitat designations on military lands that already have an Integrated Natural Resources Plan (INRP). The House bill adopts this request.

A committee version of the bill went beyond what the administration asked for and extended this exemption and eliminated the requirement to designate critical habitat on all federal lands, but the full House removed this language.

Still, critics say the House language and the administration's request would undermine protection for endangered and threatened species on 25 million acres of land owned or controlled by the military. Conservationists say these lands include some of the best habitat for more than 300 endangered species on the brink of extinction.

They contend that the INRPs are often not funded or implemented, and were never meant to be a substitute for the ESA.

An amendment to the Senate version alleviated this concern for many critics, by adding a provision to only allow the exemption if approved in writing by the Interior Department Secretary and if the management plan is funded and protects threatened and endangered species.

The amendment, which passed by a vote of 51 to 48, "puts some teeth into these plans," said Susan Holmes, senior legislative representative for the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

"It is a balanced approach," Holmes said. "It was a vote on the Endangered Species Act in many ways and in the wake of the war sends a strong signal that there is still broad bipartisan support for the law."

But the administration's exemption request from the MMPA included in the House bill guts that law, according to many critics.

The bill makes three broad changes to the MMPA, including a provision that allows the Department of Defense (DOD) to grant itself categorical exemptions from the law.

It broadens the definition "harassment" of marine mammals, giving the military much greater leeway in determining the impact their activities have on marine mammals.

Some House Republicans tried to expand this revised definition to apply all ocean users, but the full House stripped this language from the bill.

Still, conservationists say the exemptions to the MMPA are a solution in search of a problem. navysonar

Changes to the Marine Mammal Protection Act would make it easier for the U.S. Navy to test its sonar, even though there is increasing evidence that some of these tests have injured and killed some marine species. (Photo courtesy Oceana)
"Existing law has the proper exemptions," said Frymoyer, "so why do we need to go overboard and take care of a problem that does not exist?"

That sentiment resounded around each of the five exemptions pursued by the Bush administration, which received sharp criticism by a wide range of organizations and many members of Congress.

Administration officials at the Pentagon testified that the five environmental laws are impeding its ability to properly train and prepare American troops and that the current exemption provisions in each statute take too long to enact and can be subjected to lawsuits.

But this stance contradicts a report from the General Accounting Office released in June 2002 that found the Pentagon had failed to show any evidence that environmental laws had compromised military readiness and even contradicts the statements of Bush administration officials.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman, in testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in February 2003, said she was unaware of "a training mission anywhere in the country" that had been delayed or cancelled because of environmental regulations.

In a March memo DOD Undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz wrote that "in the vast majority of cases, we have demonstrated that we are able both to comply with environmental requirements and to conduct necessary military training and testing."

But these statements and findings did little to quench the appetite of the administration or some in Congress to push forward with the exemptions, an effort that "hearkens back to the extreme attacks on bedrock environmental laws that were a trademark of the 1995 Gingrich Congress," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

Critics point to an amendment included in the House bill by Arizona Representative Rick Renzi, a Republican, as evidence that many supporters of the military exemptions are simply pushing an ideological and political agenda.

Renzi's provision exempts the military under the ESA from any responsibility for water use around Arizona's Fort Huachuca.

Environmentalists say this will be devastating for the adjacent San Pedro River and its watershed, considered by many to be one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on Earth.

"It would be a deathknell for one of the nation's most ecological treasures," said Holmes of Earthjustice, "and directly undermines an agreement reached by the military, the local community and conservationists to address water use."

That agreement was the end product of several years of legal work by Earthjustice on behalf of conservation groups and the subsequent conservation work at the Fort received formal accolades from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld earlier this month.

"Renzi's rider scuttles this important agreement and has potential to really destroy the ecology of the San Pedro River," Holmes said.

Critics of the exemptions say they will continue to work to convince Congress to strip out Renzi's rider and to favor the Senate's position on the ESA and the MMPA over that put forth by the House.

"We are hopeful that a strong signal is sent by the Senate against the House requests and that the House conferees will get the message that the public is sending," Holmes said.

A recent poll by Zogby International found more than four out of five likely voters say that government agencies should have to follow the same environmental and public health laws as everyone else.

The poll finds that two out of three Republicans and "self-described conservatives" oppose exempting the military from environmental laws.