The House Armed Services Committee has approved provisions in the Defense Authorization Act for 2004 (HR 1588) that would significantly weaken fundamental provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and would strip protections for a National Conservation Area. The Committee's vote late Wednesday drastically widened the scope of the request by the Department of Defense (DOD) for exemptions to the ESA and MMPA – a request that was already sweeping, unnecessary and extremely damaging. In addition, a provision added to the bill for Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ) would threaten Arizona's San Pedro River – one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth – constituting an additional attack on the ESA.
The full House is expected to take up the Defense Authorization bill next week, and the bill may also be voted on the Senate floor as soon as next week.
"More than 300 endangered species, including bighorn sheep and peregrine falcons, live on military lands. It makes no sense to give the Pentagon carte blanche to harm or kill these species, or the whales and dolphins that swim off our shores, when in many cases, our military is already successfully balancing the needs for military readiness and species protections," said Susan Holmes, Earthjustice senior legislative representative. "Our nation's environmental protections already provide the flexibility to allow training and testing while still protecting these animals."
The bill also seeks to eliminate the designation of any critical habitat on all lands "owned or controlled" by the military – some 25 millions acres nationwide, including much of the best habitat left for more than 300 species now on the brink of extinction – wherever the DOD has already established an Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan (INRMP). According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, INRMPS has been shown to be inadequate for the protection of endangered species. Loss and degradation of habitat is the principle reason for the decline of more than 85 percent of imperiled species, Holmes said.
The bill includes a sweeping provision that seeks to eliminate critical habitat protections – one of the pillars of protection for species listed under the ESA. This provision was not requested by the DOD and would roll back important protections not only on DOD lands, but also on public and private land as well. The bill would require 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.
"These exemptions are not about military readiness – they're about excusing the Pentagon from taking responsibility for its actions," said Holmes. "The Pentagon is using its claim of military readiness requirements as a fig leaf to cover up a sweeping rollback of the Endangered Species Act."
Another provision added to the bill by Rep. Rick Renzi (R-AZ) attempts to give the Defense Department an exemption from any responsibility for ground water pumping around Arizona's Fort Huachuca – pumping which threatens the existence of the San Pedro River, one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth. The provision, which the DOD did not request, exempts the use of water for purposes such as "irrigation, or landscaping."
"Water used for the golf courses and gardens of military personnel is not a matter of national defense," said Holmes. "The Defense Department should not be allowed to drain the San Pedro River just to keep some lawns lush."
The bill would also weaken core provisions of the MMPA that protect whales and dolphins, by altering the current definition of "harassment" under the Act. This change would allow an increasing number of harmful projects, such as oil and gas exploration and high intensity sonar testing, to escape analysis by wildlife agencies, public comment, monitoring, and mitigation.
Another provision of H.R. 1588 would eliminate key conservation elements of the MMPA permitting process by deleting the current requirement that any injuring or killing of marine mammals be limited to "small numbers" in a "specific geographical region." Finally, the bill would allow the DOD to grant itself categorical exemptions from the MMPA for any "category of actions" necessary for national defense. These exemptions would not be subject to any initial stage of environmental review, excluding input from wildlife agencies, states, Congress, and the public.
"The DOD has never been denied a permit under the MMPA, making such sweeping changes completely unnecessary," noted Holmes. "No agency should be above the laws that protect our wildlife and natural resources."
The Pentagon, with support from the Bush Administration, is seeking exemptions from five federal laws protecting the environment and public health, including the ESA, MMPA, the Clean Air Act, and two laws governing toxic waste cleanups.