The American Legion Magazine
March 2002
By Alan W. Dowd

Pentagon planners have sounded the alarm over yet another threat to the nation’s security. However, this threat doesn’t come from some remote terrorist training camp or a shadowy network of anti-Western zealots. It has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden, the Taliban or Saddam Hussein; yet it could have a dramatic impact on how the U.S. military wages the War on Terror.

The Pentagon calls this new threat “encroachment,” a catchall term referring to any factor that limits or interferes with the Armed Forces’ ability to train for war. From the Massachusetts Military Reservation in Cape Cod to Camp Pendleton and San Clemente Island in California, encroachment has forced the military to surrender precious ground to cities, endangered species and government regulators. If it continues unabated, this shortsighted siege of military bases promises to have long-term consequences.

Vieques to Vegas. Encroachment can occur on land, at sea, in the air, even on the radio spectrum. And although the military uses a scant one-half of one percent of U.S. territory for training, the inexorable push of encroachment threatens to overtake what remains of these training grounds for peace.

The best-known case of encroachment unfolded at the Navy’s prize bombing range on Vieques. After years of political pressure, legal challenges and local protests, the Bush administration decided to wave the white flag and withdraw from the tiny Puerto Rican island last spring. In doing so, the White House was only coming to grips with the inevitable. U.S. law mandated that training on and around Vieques be suspended by May 2003, unless the Navy was invited to stay by local referendum. Although the atrocities of September 11 altered Washington’s plans for Vieques, they didn’t necessarily redirect Puerto Rico’s passions. In fact, even as U.S. forces deployed for the early pitched battles and skirmishes of the War on Terror, protests on Vieques persisted. 

Yet the protests aren’t nearly as worrisome to the White House as the precedent that could be set by using local rules to erode the Pentagon’s authority over its own facilities. As officials at the Office of Management and Budget explained last October, “Conducting a local referendum on issues critical to the Department of Defense sets a bad precedent and strikes at the heart of military readiness.”

Indeed, the White House knows that Puerto Rico is not an isolated case. Encroachment is occurring across the country and takes many forms, from commercial air traffic to noise ordinances. But as Marine Maj. Gen. Edward Hanlon concluded at a House Government Reform Committee hearing last year, most encroachment issues “can be traced to a single root cause: the accelerating urbanization of the regions around our installations.” That did not end when terrorists plowed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Nor is it confined to the tiny island of Vieques.

Hanlon cites San Diego as a typical example of how urbanization impacts military bases. In the last five years alone, San Diego has experienced a population increase of 250,000. As the saga of nearby Camp Pendleton illustrates, this influx of people inevitably impacts military training.

Hugging the warm waters of the Pacific, Camp Pendleton has been coping with the challenges of the population boom for decades. The state carved out a park on the base in the 1970s; a nuclear power station occupies 400 acres of the base; a 17-mile ribbon of Interstate 5 separates Pendleton’s amphibious landing beaches from its inland training facilities; and despite strong objections from the Marine Corps, county officials are now considering Camp Pendleton as the site for a new international airport. 

A bird’s eye view of Camp Pendleton resembles the parquet floor of old Boston Garden, with random chunks of land restricted, others off-limits altogether and still others not even controlled by the Marines.

Likewise, development between Nellis Air Force Base and Las Vegas has already limited takeoffs and landings on the south side of the airbase and will soon alter activity on the north side as well. 

The Red Sea. If urbanization is the root cause of encroachment, then environmental regulation is its most common symptom.

Until recently, most military bases were purposely located in remote locations, far away from cities and suburbs. “As such,” according to Lt. Gen. Larry Ellis, deputy chief of staff for operations and plans for the Army, “the public’s awareness of live training activities was minimal” -- and so was the public’s awareness of the environmental impact of those activities. But as cities mushroomed, city-dwellers began to discover that training for war is a messy, noisy business.

Yet instead of adjusting to the military, suburbanites are demanding that the military adjust to them. Rallying around shouts of “not in my backyard” – NIMBY for short – communities are pressing lawmakers and courts for new environmental restrictions on the military, hoping to make training quieter, cleaner, shorter in duration or perhaps so onerous that the base has to move somewhere else. Indeed, one of the major reasons a B-1B unit withdrew from Dobbins AFB was noise restrictions in the Atlanta area.

However, as Maj. Gen. Walter Buchanan, director of operations and training for the Air Force, observes, “If you look at a map of the United States, ‘somewhere else’ doesn’t exist. In fact, ‘somewhere else’ is always ‘right here’ for someone else.”

Even so, NIMBY is more powerful than common sense. In the past decade alone, federal lawmakers have responded to public pressure by churning out 32 pieces of environmental legislation, creating a minefield of rules and regulations that restrict military training and often invite lawsuits. Known by acronyms like ESA, CWA, CAA, CZMA, MMPA, SDWA, CERCLA and NEPA, the government’s alphabet soup of regs is drowning bases and their commanders in a sea of red tape:

*In addition to serving as one of the Navy’s most important live-fire training ranges, San Clemente Island in California is home to the most endangered bird in America, the Loggerhead Shrike. To comply with the Endangered Species Act, the base spends $2.5 million annually to protect 106 birds, and it prohibits or restricts shore bombardment exercises from February to October -- a full 75 percent of the year.

*Before every training sortie at the Goldwater Air Force Range in Arizona, target areas are scoured for pronghorn antelopes, just one of the 79 endangered species on Air Force property. If a single antelope is present, the entire target area is declared off limits for the day.

*To protect sea turtles in Vieques, the Navy had to construct a hatchery, limit the use of illumination rounds, divert an entire aircraft carrier task force and deploy a team of biologists to provide constant daytime surveillance of tidal hatching grounds. As a result, the Navy spends an extra $300,000 per exercise.

*Activists have used the ESA to protect red-cockaded woodpeckers at Forts Bragg, Polk, Stewart, Benning, Jackson and Gordon; in the process, they’ve put large swaths of training ground off limits.

*However, encroachment’s most devastating blow may have landed at the Army National Guard’s Massachusetts Military Reservation. In 1997, an EPA regional office ordered the Army to stop using lead ammunition, explosives, propellants and demolition materials at MMR, citing the Safe Drinking Water Act. “This action essentially shut down live-fire training at MMR except for use of plastic, fungible and green ammunition,” Ellis explains.

Just two years later, the governor of Massachusetts issued an executive order setting aside the entire training base as a wildlife refuge. Trying to be good neighbors and good soldiers simultaneously, Army officials have diverted some $60 million to comply with the state and federal orders that have crippled MMR.

Pentagon brass and politicians alike are deeply worried that MMR could set a dangerous precedent.  As Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., warns, “the ongoing problems at the Massachusetts Military Reservation could very well happen again in other bases across the country.” Echoing Kennedy, Ellis adds, “The EPA order to cease live-fire training at MMR leaves the Army very concerned that similar restrictions could occur at other live-fire training installations. If applied to a major training installation, the results could be catastrophic.”

Most environmental laws include national-security exemptions, but the Pentagon rarely applies them. And when it does, as in a recent case involving Camp Pendleton and Miramar, the decision is immediately challenged in federal court.

Front Burner. There’s more than a little irony in this joint assault on military facilities by environmentalists and the NIMBY crowd. Not only is the military a good steward of the environment, but most endangered species are victims of urbanization – not military training.

Army specialists, for example, monitor and protect no less than 153 endangered species. Camp Pendelton alone is home to 17 endangered species, up from three just 14 years ago. One Marine Corps official calls Pendleton “an island of biodiversity in a sea of urban development.” And a glance at southern California’s sprawling steel skyline reveals that he’s not exaggerating.

As cities expand, animal life naturally migrates to undeveloped lands. Since training for modern warfare requires vast, open spaces, the military happens to control much of what remains of America’s undeveloped territory. While base commanders don’t mind sharing, many of them can’t help but wonder why they are left holding the environmental bill for the civilian community’s appetite for consumption and development.

The military is not asking for more land; it’s not asking for special treatment; it’s not even asking for restrictions on urban growth or softening of environmental laws. “What we need is recognition,” explains Maj. Gen. Edward Hanlon, Camp Pendleton’s CO. “Recognition of our unique mission; of our land and airspace needs; and of our stewardship, our contributions to our region, and our vital role in national defense.”

In other words, the Pentagon needs Congress to step in and clarify the intent of existing environmental laws and strike a reasonable balance between national security and conservation. There are signs that Congress is ready to take that step.

Thanks to the House Government Reform Committee, Senate Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee, and of course the shocking events of September 11, this long-simmering issue has been moved to the front burner on Capitol Hill. For his part, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Penn., has vowed to introduce legislation requiring states and municipalities to conduct and publish a “National Security Impact Study” before enacting laws or regulations that might impinge on the military and its facilities. Other members are exploring ways to sharpen and refine the Endangered Species Act, and thereby protect training facilities from legal assaults.

Drive-thru Training. Some argue that this is much ado about nothing, that national security can’t be compromised by protecting some turtle hatchlings and turning down those noisy jet engines. But there are very real national-security consequences to encroachment.

Above all, encroachment is preventing U.S. troops from “training the way we fight,” a critical component of U.S. military doctrine. And readiness is suffering as a consequence:

Almost 60 percent of Camp Pendleton is at risk of being designated a “critical habitat” under the ESA, calling into question the base’s long-term viability. At Camp Lejuene and Fort Bragg, troops tiptoe around trees marked with ribbons, an indication that endangered woodpeckers have been seen nearby. Some bases are carving out buffer zones inside their fence lines to keep the neighbors happy. Others have resorted to training with fake ammunition in response to environmental concerns.

Noise restrictions in and around Fort Hood, Texas, have put 1000 acres of prime training ground off limits to Army artillery. In fact, only 17 percent of Ft. Hood is free from restrictions on training.

At Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, state officials have blocked the Army from deploying fog oil during nighttime training. And daytime use of fog oil is limited to just 15 minutes. Similar restrictions are in place at Fort Lewis in Washington and Fort Carson in Colorado. Fog oil is a critical component of combat training because it generates the smoke screens used to conceal large-scale battlefield movements. But if the troops aren’t allowed to train in it, they won’t be able to fight in it.

Sadly, that’s not the worst of what encroachment has wrought.

A victim of four separate lawsuits, the Navy’s newest submarine-detection system, a $350 million device already in use by France and Russia, has yet to be deployed in the Pacific. Thanks to the fusillade of lawsuits, hostile submarines could even now be prowling the eastern Pacific with impunity.  

Lawsuits ostensibly filed to protect migratory birds near Guam are jeopardizing the Pacific Fleet’s ability to conduct live-fire training. “Without access to live-fire training,” according to Vice Admiral James Amerault, the Navy’s top man for logistics and readiness, “the air wing could degrade to ‘unready’ within six months.” 

In late 2000, a carrier battle group was deployed to the Middle East without completing the required targeting exercises. “Denied access to the training ranges on Vieques,” an incredulous Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., recounts, “the battle group had to go begging for access to foreign ranges on the way, just to be sure their guns fired properly before they took their post in that volatile part of the world.” The Navy ultimately used beaches in Scotland and the Mediterranean for its unprecedented “drive-thru” training.

As September 11 taught us, this is no way to defend a nation, especially a nation with as many interests and enemies as ours. And as the long, hard months since September 11 remind us, wars are not fought in 15-minute increments; they aren’t won with “green” ammo; and they certainly aren’t deterred by untested personnel using untested equipment. 

*This artice also appeared in The Camp Pendleton Scout, March 21, 2002.