WASHINGTON - The House version of the 2004 military budget contains provisions that critics believe will gut the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Rather than just exempt the military from the two laws as requested by the Bush administration, House Republicans have included exemptions that could apply to other federal agencies and private industry.
"This has turned into industry gang warfare on the nation's two leading conservation laws under the guise of military readiness," said Phillip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.
The provisions are "irresponsible," said U.S. Representative Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat.
Congressional Republicans and the administration, Tauscher said today in a teleconference with reporters, are using "our military victories and the goodwill they have accrued to try to roll back these very important environmental protections."
In its budget proposal to Congress, the Bush administration asked for broad exemptions from five major environmental laws, which officials say are compromising the military's training and readiness.
Exemptions from hazardous waste laws and the Clean Air Act were stripped from the military spending bill, but the provisions to exempt the military from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) were rewritten and expanded by the House Resources Committee.
The bill changes the ESA by eliminating the requirement to designate critical habitat on all federal lands--the military had asked just for exemption on lands it controls.
It requires that only critical habitat deemed "necessary" be designated but fails to define "necessary," leaving the protection of critical habitat to the discretion of the Secretaries of Interior and Commerce.
This cuts out the heart of the ESA, environmentalists say, and leaves decisions about when and where to designate critical habitat solely in the hands of political appointees.
Critical habitat is "the only provision in the act that proactively protects habitat," said Bill Snape, chief counsel with Defenders of Wildlife and chairman of the Endangered Species Coalition.
Habitat degradation is the number one reason for species decline--some 85 percent of species currently listed on the ESA are in decline because of habitat loss.
In addition, the bill eliminates the designation under the ESA of any critical habitat on all lands "owned or controlled" by the military where the Defense Department has established its own Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan, even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has shown this type of plan is inadequate for the protection of endangered species.
This could affect some 25 millions acres nationwide, including crucial habitat for more than 300 species now on the brink of extinction.
"These changes represent a major attack at the core of the act," Clapp said.
The bill makes three broad changes to the MMPA, including a provision that allows the Department of Defense to grant itself categorical exemptions from the law.
It revises the current definition of "harassment"--not just for the military, but for all ocean users.
Environmentalists fear this will allow projects, such as oil and gas exploration and high intensity sonar testing, to escape analysis by wildlife agencies, public comment, monitoring, and mitigation.
The MMPA's provision to protect marine mammals from harassment is "one the cornerstones of the Act," explains Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Humane Society.
The existing definition is "very precautionary and very protective," Rose said, but the bill turns this definition on its head.
The bill removes the current requirement of MMPA's permitting process that requires any injuring or killing of marine mammals be limited to "small numbers" in a "specific geographical region."
"There is simply no need for such broad exemptions from the law," said Congressman Tom Allen, a Maine Democrat.
Critics of these exemptions say supporters have no evidence that even the military needs exemption from these laws.
Both the ESA and the MMPA have case by case exemptions for national security and a recent General Accounting Office report found that the Pentagon had failed to show any evidence that environmental laws had compromised military readiness.
A host of state officials have criticized the administration's plan, which they believe abdicates the federal government from important conservation measures and shifts a greater burden onto states and local governments.
"For the Department of Defense, this is simply a matter of convenience--they do not want to be bothered," Allen said. "The military has never said there has been a problem with readiness because of an environmental law and it looks and it feels like they are making this up for their own convenience."
The lack of empirical evidence that the military needs exemptions from environmental laws has prompted "DOD political appointees to aggressively distort facts to try and make their case," Snape said.
He cited false information given to Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, about the impact protection for Sonoran pronghorn was alleged to have had on military training.
McCain said in a Senate hearing that 40 percent of flyovers at overflights at the Barry Goldwater range had been cancelled or postponed because of Sonoran Pronghorn conservation efforts. The real number is six percent, Snape said, and McCain has asked a commission to investigate.
"They are constantly pushing the factual envelope trying to make their case because when the facts speak for themselves, they are not left with much," Snape said.
Critics point to an amendment added to the bill by Arizona Representative Rick Renzi, a Republican, as evidence that the bill's supporters are simply pushing an ideological and political agenda.
Renzi's provision gives the military an exemption from any responsibility for ground water pumping around Arizona's Fort Huachuca. Environmentalists say this will be devastating for the adjacent San Pedro River and its watershed, considered by many to be one of the the most biologically diverse ecosystems on Earth.
"This would kill the last living river in an American desert," Snape explained. "It has nothing to do with DOD readiness."
House Democrats are preparing several amendments to revoke the broad exemptions to the MMPA and the ESA contained in the bill, but Tauscher acknowledged she and some of her colleagues are looking to the Senate to help eliminate these provisions.
The current Senate version of the bill only exempts the military from the ESA.
If House Republicans believed the American public supported their broad revisions to the ESA and the MMPA, Tauscher said, they would not have slipped them into the $400 billion defense spending bill.
"We need to stop this pernicious attack on our environment at a time when we have many other things that we should be doing," Tauscher said.
© 2003 OneWorld.net