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NEXT: TARGETS ON TORTOISES



Published: Wed, August 29, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Los Angeles Times: The U.S. military is planning what appears to be a sneak attack on the Endangered Species Act. Some generals and admirals are unhappy because their tank training and bombing practice must be tailored to preserve the habitats of threatened or endangered species.

A proposal is circulating in the Defense Department to request amendment of the Endangered Species Act to give the military services greater freedom to train and conduct exercises in areas where there are threatened or endangered species. One big loophole would allow the secretary of Defense to grant exemptions "for reasons of military readiness." This blank check, if it makes it to Congress, should be torn to pieces.

What's most dismaying about the proposal is that the military has been a generally good steward of threatened and endangered species, building a solid reserve of public approval. Why squander all that goodwill?

Millions of acres in California and elsewhere in the West were used in World War II as training bases and maneuvering grounds. Much of the land remains in Defense Department hands, including the Army's giant Ft. Irwin and the China Lake Naval Weapons Center in the Mojave Desert, home of the vulnerable, endangered desert tortoise. Coastal bases include Camp Pendleton, which has its own environmental protection unit and has been granted specific Endangered Species Act exclusions by proving a need.

Wildlife refuges: As development and growth have spread, especially near the coast, the bases have become islands of open space and de facto wildlife refuges. A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told The Times' Kenneth R. Weiss and Deborah Schoch that his agency had worked very successfully with the military to balance the need for realistic training and the protection of species.

However, military leaders complained during a series of congressional hearings earlier this year that urban sprawl, environmental laws and other factors were severely restricting their training. The Pentagon can't remove suburban tract houses, so the target has become wildlife.

The Endangered Species Act has been up for renewal for several years, but Congress cannot agree on how to change it. The building industry and other development groups favor weakening the act. When and if the law finally is overhauled, the changes should focus on the best methods of protecting species and not on adding loopholes. Generals and admirals got their jobs by being smart, strategic thinkers. Let them put those talents to conducting realistic training without further endangering rare plants and animals.




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