Saying military readiness is at stake, the Pentagon is asking Congress to exempt military installations, including several in California, from environmental laws protecting marine mammals and endangered species and requiring the cleanup of potentially toxic weapons sites.
The Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative, sponsored by the White House, seeks exemptions from several environmental laws:
* A section of the Endangered Species Act that protects wildlife habitat.
* Sections of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that prohibit harassment of whales, dolphins, manatees and other sea mammals.
* Part of the Superfund statute that covers cleanups of explosives and munitions.
* Clean Air Act requirements for military vehicles during training.
* Hazardous waste laws that prohibit exposed toxic substances and require paying damages to states in cases of contamination.
The Defense Department presented its case during hearings on Capitol Hill last week, outlining its request that branches of the service be given the flexibility to operate outside the restrictions of environmental laws, which the military says hamper training and preparedness.
The initiative is being considered by committees in the House and Senate.
The California military installations most affected are Camp Pendleton, Ft. Irwin, Edwards Air Force Base, China Lake Naval Weapons Center, the Twentynine Palms Marine base and, east of the Salton Sea, the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range.
There has long been friction at California's military installations, where training such as live bombing, tank maneuvers and amphibious beach assaults can run afoul of federal protections for the plants and animals on military lands.
At Camp Pendleton, Marine officers complain that trainees can't dig a proper foxhole without disturbing nesting Western snowy plovers. At Ft. Irwin, tank commanders say they are unable to expand desert training out of deference to a small desert tortoise.
"It creates a lot of problems when you have to work around something," said Glenn Flood, a Defense Department spokesman. "Our guys have to hit the beach, walk on a sidewalk, then resume training. It takes time and energy to do that. They should not have to do that all the time."
Critics of the proposed exemptions say the military has maintained a laudable record of stewardship on 25 million acres across the nation while still fulfilling its training mission.
They question the need for exemptions, noting that the Defense Department already has the right to request waivers on a case-by-case basis.
"They've never had a legitimate problem complying with these laws," said Daniel Patterson, ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "On the one hand, they say how well prepared our forces are to do the job, then they want us to believe that these environmental and health laws are stopping our troops from training. They are talking out of both sides of their mouth."
Capt. Chris Belcher, a public information officer at Ft. Irwin, said in an interview last week that working around the endangered desert tortoise has never hampered the Army's mission there.
In Senate testimony last month, Christine Whitman, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said: "I don't believe that there is a training mission anywhere in the country that is being held up or not taking place because of environmental protection regulation."
On Tuesday, however, a spokesman for the agency said it supported the Defense Department's request for exemptions.
Bruce Eilerts, a former natural resources specialist for the Navy and Air Force who worked on bases in Hawaii and California, said adhering to environmental laws is difficult under any circumstances on military bases.
"The real issue is that it's a hassle," said Eilerts, who left his Defense Department job two years ago. "The military is tired of spending the money and having to comply with the law. Military commanders don't want to be told there are other priorities on their land. They want to operate without any checks and balances."
At Camp Pendleton, home to 18 endangered or threatened species, Marine officials say their ability to train has been restricted both by encroaching development surrounding the 125,000-acre base and the complications of the Endangered Species Act.
Stan Norquist, head of Camp Pendleton's natural resources department, said the Marines' access to their main training beach is restricted because it is a seasonal nesting place for the plover.
He said military off-road vehicles must avoid stream beds and tidal areas to keep from damaging habitat for a variety of wildlife, including the California gnatcatcher and the arroyo toad.
"Training decisions are being driven by avoidance, rather than tactics," he said, adding that most imperiled species have thrived under the Navy's care.
But Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles said beach-access complaints are a smokescreen.
"Most of the restrictions on training on beaches have nothing to do with the environmental laws," he said.
"It has to do with the fact that the I-5 freeway runs up the coast, that they've got San Onofre nuclear station and train tracks to get over. The biggest threat to Camp Pendleton is sprawl, not environmental laws," he said.