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Who is Encroaching Upon Whom?

During the 2001 legislative session, Congress devoted a great deal of time and focus to the topic of encroachment. Encroachment can be defined as the real or perceived conflict between the military training mission and the physical environment of habitat, species, people and communities. The problem of encroachment arises because all need land for some form of activity, and those needs are often at odds with one another.

At its poles, the tension between readiness and the environment seems like an irreconcilable difference. On the one hand, there are military leaders and their political supporters who resist any environmental or regulatory limitation that inhibits the armed forces from "training as they fight." They argue that restrictions on training not only reduce American military effectiveness, but they also put American fighting men and women at unnecessary risk. Thus, national security trumps the environment.

On the other hand, there are neighbors of military facilities, as well as environmental and natural resource regulatory agencies, who believe that a key purpose of national security is to protect Americans and our natural resources. Training that threatens either should not be permitted. The military should obey the same environmental laws as any other organization, even if testing and training programs are hurt. Many of these people are veterans or supporters of the U.S. military, but they believe that a balance between environment and national security needs can be struck.

The encroachment debate encompasses two distinct, but related issues:


The first issue, which many people consider genuine "encroachment," entails the expansion of civilian activity (residential and commercial development) into formerly remote military training areas. Military noise, air pollution, and water pollution threaten or annoy the public. And public activity, from traffic to electromagnetic spectrum use to even a rise in ambient light levels at night, may interfere with military operations.

Military pollution should be prevented, whether it be in urban areas or the most remote, desolate regions. But encroachment itself is an environmental problem, better recognizable perhaps by its other name, sprawl. The continuing development of historically open spaces in our country not only directly damages our landscape, natural resources and agricultural land and waterways, it leads us to waste resources on infrastructure and energy consumption. Accidentally, the military is an ally in the battle against sprawl. Many of its bases, from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to Camp Pendleton in California, have stood in the way of urban growth. Indeed Camp Pendleton's 150,000 acres are the only thing preventing Los Angeles and San Diego from merging into a single megalopolis.


The second issue is habitat preservation and enhancement. Again accidentally, the military's need to prevent development on or near training areas has often created, as officers have testified, islands of biodiversity. Once the Defense Department discovered that, combining genuine concern with a thirst for positive public relations, it began programs to protect those resources. Some of the biodiverse creatures and flora are protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and other laws. Some within the military have described enforcement of those laws as "regulatory encroachment." However, many inside the Pentagon recognize that urban sprawl, not regulatory compliance, is ultimately the source of this pressure between environmental concerns and force protection. As a former Assistant Secretary of the Army stated in a recent article on urban sprawl and military training, "Some day in the near future, an Army general somewhere may look back wistfully on the days when his or her neighbor was an endangered species. They are a hell of a lot easier to manage."

One can understand the military's frustration with the regulatory framework for the protection of habitat and species. Those landowners-not just the military-who have preserved habitat and supported rare species are encumbered with the cost and activity restrictions of protecting those that remain. It may be unfair, but at present a better solution does not exist. It seems, at times, that enormous resources are being spent to save a small number of animals or plants with no apparent benefit, but the named species are supposed to serve as indicators for entire ecosystems. Both the enforcers and critics of these laws often forget that. If preserving ecosystems is to remain an important national goal, then having the military support that goal-as a normal cost of doing business-is an effective way of pursuing it.

As suggested above, encroachment and habitat preservation are at times related. Where urban sprawl approaches the boundaries of military ranges, development destroys habitat. Military facilities which previously supported only portions of ecosystems bear increasing responsibility for protecting the disappearing remainder. In those cases, policies that discourage encroachment simultaneously are likely to give the military more flexibility in managing the habitat that it owns.

Sustainable Range Management

Sustainable Range Management focuses on the practices that allow the military to manage their ranges in a way that ensures it will be able to continue using them well into the future. The tension between training and the environment will always be an issue, but the military can implement measures that preserve the land as well as the military's ability to utilize it. The military faces significant obstacles in acquiring new training lands. Therefore preservation and sustainable management of its current lands must be a priority.

In 2000, the National Dialogue on Military Munitions-an official discussion group facilitated by the Keystone Center, in which we at CPEO participated-defined sustainable range/use management. The Dialogue focused on munitions use, but its principles can be extrapolated to other environmental issues. The purposes of sustainable range management, it wrote, are:

  • to enable continued use of ranges for military training and testing missions;
  • to assure that military munitions ranges are used in a way that protects human health and the environment;
  • to facilitate the return of ranges to other uses when the military no longer requires their use; and
  • to promote [Department of Defense] actions to protect human health and the environment at former military ranges where there are known or suspected explosive safety and/or environmental hazards.

In order to build trust with range neighbors and regulators, the military must stop treating the landscape (or the nation's waterways) as an environmental bottomless pit. There are bases where the military fires into a sector until it fills up with unexploded ordnance. When that sector is no longer useful, it moves on to the next sector. This is not a sustainable practice. On the other hand, there already are promising examples of the military moving towards sustainable range management. These practices allow training to continue, with minimum disruption to the military mission and minimum damage to the environment. These practices can also reduce the need to spend extra money protecting the environment from training.


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