Twenty years ago, America's battle-seasoned generals had about as much desire to shelter the endangered woodpeckers on their training bases as they had in running child-care centers for their soldiers' children. But like it or not, they're doing both jobs now and doing them fairly well.
So it's puzzling, not to mention disheartening, that the Pentagon is trying for a second year in a row to get Congress to grant it a blanket exemption from major federal environmental laws.
On Thursday, members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees will hear the military's top brass argue that these laws impede troop training and readiness. But experience from around the country and a recent report from the federal General Accounting Office greatly undercut their case.
The new proposal, the Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative, would excuse the military from enforcing much of the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Superfund law.
The military controls 25 million acres of open space across the United States, home to more than 300 endangered plant and animal species and much of it unique habitat. Suburbanization has left Camp Pendleton, for example, the last major stretch of open space along Southern California's coast.
Unfortunately, the Department of Defense remains one of the nation's worst environmental offenders. The Pentagon had to stop live-fire training at a Massachusetts military range in 1997 when officials discovered that toxic chemicals from unexploded shells had leached into the drinking water of surrounding towns. At other bases, tanks crushed tortoises and firing exercises disrupted animals and nesting birds.
Over the years, however, many commanders have learned to protect the wildlife on their bases without compromising troop training. In fact, last summer's GAO report turned up few reports from commanders themselves that environmental laws had compromised troop training. Instead, there are many win-win stories.
At Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, for example, the Army changed training practices to protect the red-cockaded woodpecker. Commanders barred soldiers from driving their tanks over young trees, marked off nesting areas and ended the on-base logging that brought in extra dollars. Once dwindling woodpeckers are now protected, and Ft. Bragg's graduates are as ready for combat as ever.
Federal law already allows case-by-case exemptions when environmental laws hurt troop readiness, and the secretary of Defense has the unilateral authority to waive one law, the Endangered Species Act. The fact that the Pentagon has asked for only one exemption should persuade Congress that a blanket waiver is unnecessary.