by Lenny Siegel

Introduction | Encroachment | Habitat | Sustainable Range Management A Dialogue


At the March 20, 2001 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on "encroachment," three generals and an admiral fired a figurative warning shot across the Congressional bow: environmental conditions and rules and making it increasingly difficult to train. If Congress wants our armed services to be ready for combat, suggested the flag officers, then they must act quickly. The officers stopped short of requesting that military training be exempted from environmental controls, but it appears that's only because they've been restrained by more politically astute civilian leaders within the Pentagon.

For the last two decades, many in the Pentagon have resisted assuming responsibility for environmental protection and restoration. It's costly. It's not the military's principal mission. And many requirements appear unfair or inefficient. But current pressures-which have been building steadily over several years go further. They threaten the military's principal activity: training for war.

At its poles, the tension between readiness and the environment seems like an irreconcilable difference. On the one hand, there are military leaders and their political supporters who resist any environmental or regulatory limitation that inhibits the armed forces from "training as they fight." Wrapping themselves in the flag, they argue that restrictions on training not only reduce American military effectiveness, but they also put American fighting men and women at unnecessary risk. Thus, national security trumps the environment.

On the other hand, there are neighbors of military facilities, as well as environmental and natural resource regulatory agencies, who believe that a key purpose of national security is to protect Americans and our natural resources. Training that threatens either should not be permitted. The military should obey the same environmental laws as any other organization, even if testing and training programs are hurt. Many of these people are veterans or supporters of the U.S. military, but they consider no external threat to the U.S. to be so se-rious as to undermine the need for strong environ-mental standards.

Neither of these positions is extreme or irrational. I personally tend to support the latter, because I think our nation is all too ready to resort to military force. However, I think it's politically unwise to use the environmental tail to wag the dog of U.S. foreign and military policy. That is, I am prepared to seek compromise, to find a way for the U.S. military to accomplish its mission with a minimum of environmental disruption, because the political majority in this country generally backs military preparedness. I will work through other channels to reshape our foreign policy.


The encroachment debate actually encompasses two distinct, but related issues. The first, which I consider genuine "encroachment," entails the ex-pansion of civilian activity into formerly remote military training areas. Military noise, air pollution, and water pollution threaten or annoy the public. And public activity, from traffic to electromagnetic spectrum use to even a rise in ambient light levels at night, may interfere with military operations.

Military pollution should be prevented, whether it be in urban areas or the most remote, desolate regions. But encroachment itself is an environmen-tal problem, better recognizable perhaps by its other name, sprawl. The continuing development of historically open spaces in our country not only directly damages our landscape-natural and agri-cultural-and waterways, it leads us to waste resources on infrastructure and energy consumption. While I don't favor plowing over subdivisions and shopping malls, I do support policies that promote the revitalization of existing urban areas.

Accidentally, the military is an ally in the battle against sprawl. Many of its bases, from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to Camp Pendleton in California, have stood in the way of urban growth. I recall, around 1960, bicycling with my siblings from our home in west Los Angeles to San Diego, and noting, even then, that Camp Pendleton's 150,000 acres were the only thing preventing Los Angeles and San Diego from merging into a single megalopolis.


The second issue is habitat preservation and enhancement. Again accidentally, the military's need to prevent development on or near training ar-eas has often created, as the officers testified, is-lands of biodiversity. Once the Defense Department discovered that, combining genuine concern with a thirst for positive public relations, it began programs to protect those resources.

Some of the biodiverse creatures and flora are protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and other laws. In their draft testi-mony, the officers actually used the term "regulatory encroachment" to describe enforcement of those laws, but wiser heads removed that language by the time their statements were delivered to the Senate.

One can understand the military's frustration with the regulatory framework for the protection or habitat and species. Those landowners-not just the military-who have preserved habitat and sup-ported rare species are encumbered with the cost and activity restrictions of protecting those that remain. It may be unfair, but I don't have a better solution. It seems, at times, that enormous re-sources are being spent to save a small number of animals or plants with no apparent benefit, but the named species are supposed to serve as indicators of entire ecosystems. Both the enforcers and critics of these laws often forget that. If preserving ecosystems is to remain an important national goal, then having the military support that goal-as a normal cost of doing business-is an effective way of pursuing it.

As I suggested above, encroachment and habi-tat preservation are at times related. Where urban sprawl approaches the boundaries of military ranges, development destroys habitat. Military fa-cilities which previously supported only portions of ecosystems bear increasing responsibility for protecting the disappearing remainder. In those cases, policies that discourage encroachment simul-taneously are likely to give the military more flexibility in managing the habitat that it owns.

Sustainable Range Management

Reviewing the March 20 testimony, it's clear that the military hasn't just invented the problem. It does face increasing constraints on its training ac-tivity. The Navy and Marines are under particular pressure, because they own less training land and they have unique requirements-shoreline and beaches-that are both less available and more likely to be in demand from either developers or natural resource trustees.

In some locations, the conflicts between train-ing and the environment will never go away. But nationwide, those conflicts can be resolved or at least mitigated by pursuing "sustainable range management." Indeed, some of the officers discussed this concept in their testimony.

Last year the National Dialogue on Military Munitions-an official discussion group facilitated by the Keystone Center, in which we at CPEO participated-defined sustainable range/use man-agement. The Dialogue focused on munitions use, but its principles can be extrapolated to other environmental issues. The purposes of sustainable range management, it wrote, are:

  • a) to enable continued use of ranges for military training and testing missions;
  • b) to assure that military munitions ranges are used in a way that protects human health and the environment;
  • c) to facilitate the return of ranges to other uses when the military no longer requires their use; and
  • d) to promote [Department of Defense] actions to protect human health and the environment at former military ranges where there are known or suspected explosive safety and/or environmental hazards.

To build trust with range neighbors and regula-tors, the military must stop treating the landscape (or the nation's waterways) as an environmental bottomless pit. There are bases where the military fires into a sector until it fills up with unexploded ordnance. When that sector is no longer useful,. it moves on to the next sector.

On the other hand, there already are promising exam-ples of the military moving towards sus-tainable range management. These practices allow training to continue, with minimum disruption to the military mission and minimum damage to the environment. These practices can also reduce the need to spend extra money protecting the environ-ment from training.

For example, about a decade ago at Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin, a local activist accused the Army of poisoning the headwaters of a popular trout stream, by targeting artillery on the stream. He took pic-tures showing a concentration of impact craters near the stream. Presumably the Army was practic-ing taking out a bridge, but it turned out that mov-ing the target-the ersatz bridge-away from the creek wouldn't impair the training. So they did so, minimizing the potential for environmental damage without undercutting readiness.

With a more long-term view, the Air Force has determined that it can manage ranges better by "working to ensure that environmental, safety, and health considerations are integral to require-ments definition and the acquisition process." For example, for many years the Air Force has used practice bombs, filled with concrete rather than high explosives, on many of its training runs. That cuts the unexploded ordnance-that is, dud-problem drastically, but its generates a large supply of used, non-recyclable concrete bombs, which either remain on ranges or must be "disposed" of somehow. To solve that problem the Air Force is developing metal-only practice bombs. They might be more expensive to produce, but they can be re-cycled.

Sustainable range management, as it applies to noise, air pollution, and the threat to habitat, is likely to require the creation or expansion of buffer zones adjacent to essential training areas. This doesn't necessarily mean extending the boundaries of ranges. It may mean, as the Army has done at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the creation of con-servation easements, in which development rights are acquired on behalf of land management agencies or private trusts. Buffer zones keep homes, schools, and businesses away from the hazards and annoyances of training, and they can protect species threatened otherwise by development on the one hand and high intensity training on the other.

A Dialogue

We at CPEO propose a new dialogue, to con-tinue and broaden the work of the Munitions Dialogue, to address sustainable range manage-ment. This dialogue can develop and promote practices for reconciling military training needs with community development and environmental protection. Like the Munitions Dialogue, the new group should include representatives of federal, state, tribal, and local agencies; environmental, community, and environmental justice organiza-tions; and the private sector.

I don't expect such a dialogue to resolve all disputes over military training. Even within stakeholders groups, there are differences about what level of training is necessary to protect our national interests. To succeed, participants in the dialogue should recognize on the one hand, that as long as we have a military it will continue to seek realistic training opportunities, and on the other hand, that we cannot afford to have the military train anywhere, any time, without regard for neighboring communities or the natural environment.