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Housing Developments Near Bases Hindering Military Training
By Steff Thomas
 

Desert tortoises are one example of endangered animals that live near some military bases

The military has vast stretches of land on which to operate in the continental United States, but nearby housing developments and environmental laws are making it increasingly difficult to train there, a Defense Department official said.
 
The remote areas managed by the Defense Department are richer in biodiversity than any other lands in the federal inventory, said James Van Ness, acting deputy general counsel of environment and installations at the Defense Department. More than 400 threatened and endangered species can be found within their boundaries. Restrictions to protect flora and fauna have had a direct impact on the efficiency of military training in these remote areas.
 
“You don’t want to put your sons and daughters, husbands or wives into harm’s way if they haven’t been sufficiently trained,” Van Ness said July 18 at an Environmental Law Institute panel in Washington, D.C.
 
The lands surrounding defense installments are gradually becoming developed, which presents problems. Housing complexes and shopping malls with artificial light impede on evening flights when pilots wear night-vision goggles, Van Ness said.
 
As more new buildings spring up nearby bases, animals flock to the undeveloped land the services use for training, he said. With the added environmental restrictions, units that need to train are finding it harder to be prepared for the modern battlefield, he added.
 
“The standoff distances for the weapons that are used are incredibly large. For us to train as we fight — the way we must train — we have to have the kind of space that allows us to do the kind of training and testing necessary for those kinds of weapons,” he said.
 
Van Ness suggested that the department look for off-base alternatives. Military units need places to train that are away from installations where threatened and endangered species live, he said.
 
Many of these programs are already in the works and have yielded positive results, but they don’t always have the full support of everyone in the department, he said.
 
“This isn’t about the department skirting its responsibility to protect imperiled species or meet its natural resource responsibilities under the conservation statues,” Van Ness said. It is about finding smarter ways to meet those requirements while still fulfilling the obligation of properly testing and training the men and women the military asks to carry out dangerous missions, he added.
 
The Defense Department budgets $4 billion annually on environmental programs. These programs are instituted on about 28 to 29 million acres of land, which is about the size of Pennsylvania. The land is not owned by the department, but leased to them by the Department of the Interior, he said.
 
The department’s environmental programs are “selfish,” said John Conger, acting deputy undersecretary of defense environment and installations at the Defense Department. It is all about the mission and saving funds, he added.
 
“If we used up, destroyed or didn’t care for the land, there wouldn’t be a while lot left for us to train on when we were done. We expect to be around for the foreseeable future, so therefore we need to maintain our bases,” Conger said.
 
Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980, which “requires responsible parties to clean up releases of hazardous substances in the environment,” according to the Defense Department’s environment safety and occupational health network and information exchange website.
 
The Defense Environmental Restoration Program focuses on cleaning up used defense sites in order to reduce potential risks to human health and the environment, the website said.
 
The department has made significant progress in this regard, Conger said. Today nearly 76 percent of the contaminated or damaged sites have been cleaned up, and an additional 5 percent are in the process of being restored. He predicted 95 percent of the work will be completed by 2021.
 
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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