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SOS Rhino : In the News : Species Regulations May Be Endangered

Species Regulations May Be Endangered


House Votes to Let Defense Sidestep Protection Laws By:

Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, May 22, 2003; Page A33 The House voted yesterday to exempt the Defense Department from two laws designed to protect endangered animals and plants, arguing that the restrictions hamper the military's ability to train U.S. troops and test weapons.

The 252 to 174 vote was a victory for the Bush administration, which has spent more than a year seeking authority to sidestep regulations meant to protect endangered species, marine mammals and migratory birds that are on or near military installations.

The measure, which faces resistance in the Senate, would give the Interior Department more leeway in setting aside rules in cases where the military wants to conduct training and testing on the ground, in the air and in oceans and waterways.

" These troops need to have places to train, and these training grounds are becoming more and more restricted because of applications, and I think wrongful applications, of our environmental laws," said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).

House leaders now must reconcile the measure -- which is part of the Defense Department's annual authorization bill -- with their Senate counterparts. The Senate adopted language yesterday requiring the military to draw up and fund a conservation plan before setting aside federal environmental rules.

The Senate proposal, offered by Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and others, was approved 51 to 48, with most Democrats supporting it and most Republicans opposing it.
Lautenberg said the proposal would require the secretary of Interior to determine whether each conservation plan would effectively protect the species in question and assure that it is adequately funded.

The Bush administration has pushed aggressively for the exemptions since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, suggesting that the nation could not adequately defend against terrorism without them. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz sent a memo to Pentagon officials in March, seeking examples of where environmental protections interfere with military operations.

Environmental advocates and many Democrats decried the House vote, arguing that it could lead to the destruction of some animal species. The measure redefines what constitutes "harassment" of marine mammals, for example, allowing the Navy to conduct loud tests near endangered underwater mammals.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W. Va.) called the provision authored by Hunter "a disaster, to put it mildly. Our troops have done a superb job. . . . They don't need to undercut laws."

Military officials on several bases have begun complaining that they have been forced to hold off on training and testing in order to accommodate vulnerable species.

Commanders at Camp Pendleton, a base nearly 40 miles north of San Diego, have been warring with environmentalists over how best to protect endangered animals such as the tidewater goby fish, the Arroyo toad, the San Diego and Riverside fairy shrimp, and the coastal California gnatcatcher, a songbird.

Hunter displayed maps on the House floor yesterday depicting the contested areas, saying there was no longer sufficient room for the Marine Corps to conduct amphibious training exercises.

But environmentalists questioned Hunter's assessment, noting that of all the species he identified, just one of them, the tidewater goby, took up space on training grounds. In that case the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set aside 800 acres of land on Camp Pendleton, which encompasses 125,000 acres.

These activists suggested that the House action -- which will be finalized today when the House approves the overall defense bill -- was both dangerous and unnecessary, and could have devastating consequences by disturbing critical habitat.

" The Department of Defense does not need across-the-board exemptions from the nation's two major wildlife conservation laws," said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. "This is bureaucrats in the Pentagon who don't want to be bothered."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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