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Congress Moves on ESA Exemptions for Military Training

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - May 23, 2003

Congress this week moved to exempt military training and readiness activities from major federal requirements for protecting endangered species and marine mammals.

But the House and Senate set different criteria for Department of Defense bases, firing and bombing ranges to obtain exemptions. Next month, House members and senators and Bush administration officials will try to resolve the differences in a House-Senate conference committee.

The exemptions are included in the FY04 Department of Defense authorization bill, which passed the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday in different versions.

Both the Senate and House bills would prohibit federal fish and wildlife agencies from designating critical habitat for endangered species on military lands for which a species conservation management plan has been approved.

Environmental groups said 25 million acres of land that is "owned or controlled" by the military contains some of the best remaining habitat for more than 300 endangered or threatened species. They said the Endangered Species Act already allows case-by-case exemptions for national security and are opposed to any broader exemptions.

Last year with Democrats in majority in the Senate, Congress rebuffed the Department of Defense's request for broader exemptions. Saying current restrictions on training areas on land and water are hampering combat readiness, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld renewed the effort this year.

Voting 51-48, senators amended the bill to require that before approving exemptions, the secretary of interior would have to determine that defense facilities' proposed conservation management plans effectively preserve species and have adequate funding. Rumsfeld and most Republican senators, including those from the Northwest, opposed the amendment by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. Democrats supported it.

The original House bill would have allowed any federal land designated for military use to be exempted from critical habitat designations, not just military lands. But by a vote of 252-175, the House approved an amendment by Rep. Hunter, R-Calif., to limit it to military lands.

The main example cited by both sides in the debate was Camp Pendleton in California. Of 18 species listed as threatened and endangered on the 125,000 acres, only 840 acres of critical habitat has been recommended, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said.

But supporters of the exemption said restrictions to protect endangered species and marine mammals are proliferating.

"If you have a seal sitting on a buoy and a Navy ship goes by, if the seal even looks up, he is, according to at least one biologist in the Department of Fish and Wildlife, potentially disturbed," Hunter said. "If you potentially disturb a seal, you cannot undertake that particular military activity."

"There is one endangered species that this provision protects and that is the 19-year-old Marine or soldier or airman who needs adequate training and right now is seeing his training areas diminished by conservationism and environmentalism," he said.

Blumenauer disputed claims endangered species protection was interfering with the readiness of the armed forces. The bill "would just simply gut environmental protection," he said.

"When we give our fighting men and women the right resources and the right orders, they can accomplish anything," Blumenauer said. "We should be directing that they protect the environment, (and that) they clean up after themselves."

Lautenberg said exempting the Department of Defense from respecting critical habitat on its lands "would severely weaken our country's efforts to protect endangered species. ... Protecting critical habitat has long been an essential tool that federal, state, and local jurisdictions have used to protect endangered species. When endangered species have no place to live, they perish."

Also, he said the change not necessary to maintain military readiness.

The bill's proposed integrated natural resources management plans for threatened and endangered species are not subject to the same strong standards as habitat conservation plans under the Endangered Species Act, he said. "No matter how threatened the species, no matter what is found on the land, it will not be strongly protected."

Lautenberg said his amendment is a reasonable approach to making the proposed plans effective.

CBB Staff
Congress Moves on ESA Exemptions for Military Training
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 23, 2003

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