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Unnecessary assault on environment

Alan Braunholtz

The U.S. military tends to have a “can do” attitude. For the past 30 years, the armed forces have been co-existing with the nation’s wild heritage. Soldiers are very good at doing what they’re told, and the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act told them to get along with the animals that live on their bases.

They’ve been getting better and better at it, too. In Hawaii the military does probably the best work of anyone there. In Fort Stewart, the 3rd infantry battalion trains among 5 percent of the world’s population of red-cockaded woodpeckers. According to the people there, this has little impact on the troops’ combat readiness. Lt. Colonel Michael Case says, “The same landscape that supports our training needs also supports the ecosystem. These seemingly opposing activities are inherently compatible.”

The armed forces can ask for temporary waivers to environmental regulations if they think they need to. They never have.

Christie Whitman (the head of the EPA before resigning) testified to Congress that she didn’t know of any case in which environmental laws compromised troop readiness. They might even help. If in training you are used to fighting around sites of woodpecker nests, then real wars where enemy troops deploy near similarly designated sensitive areas (civilian complexes, mosques, etc.) are that much easier.

Nice to think that the U.S. Army can provide national security and environmental protection.

Well, not any more! The White House apparently can’t do environmental protection in any form, especially if it works. That’d set a bad precedent. Under the current climate of fear, the White House asked Congress to exempt the military from our country’s laws. This could be an opportunistic power grab by the Pentagon chafing against imagined constraints or part of the continued assault against any regulations on principle.

The Army’s experience shows that with a little effort and ingenuity (something they have in spades), you can have both environmental protections without constraining the military. That scares industry, which might have to follow suit. Heaven help us if someone comes up with an idea to reduce automobile pollution without affecting performance. Couldn’t have the public thinking that environmental protection is possible at a reasonable cost.

After the military’s exemptions from our environmental laws, the rightwing “thinkers” wanted more. If the work of the military is important enough to be above these silly laws, why not other vital interests like the oil industry, auto industry, home developers, strip malls? This is where their arguments point.

Now the Navy will have a wide leeway to use underwater explosions and high intensity sonar without worrying about marine mammals. Powerful sonar has a horrendous effect on whales. Dead whales found after military exercises have bleeding from the eyes, ears and brain – the result of being battered by sound waves.

Dolphins will swim as fast as possible away from a sonar ship, but the ships are faster. Whales use sound to “see,” and in the presence of sonar they can get vertigo. They’re dizzy and have no idea of up or down or even which direction the deafening noise is coming from. They swim in a blind panic and often beach themselves.

Naval planners knew about these effects but argued against them for the sake of operational convenience. This showed the same arrogant indifference to the natural world we live in, depend on and marvel at that the White House does. At least the Navy’s only destroying whales, not the whole climate.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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