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“Get Your Endangered Species Off My Bombing Range!”

A-10 training on bombing range in Nevada. Photo: DoD.

“The Department of Defense’s ability to conduct realistic live-fire training, weapons system testing, and essential operations is vital to preparing a more lethal and resilient force for combat. . . . Starting in the late 1990s, the Department became increasingly concerned about “encroachment” pressures adversely affecting the military’s use of training and testing lands. Specifically, military installations saw two main threats to their ability to test, train, and operate: nearby incompatible land uses and environmental restrictions to protect imperiled species and their habitats.”

Such problems are to be resolved by the DoD Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) Program. Among the threatening encroachments are lights from residential and commercial development that reduce the effectiveness of night-vision training; restrictions imposed because of noise, dust and smoke of military activities; civilian use of the frequency spectrum; communication towers, wind turbines, highways, and energy transmission lines; construction or drones that enable observation into sensitive mission areas; foreign ownership of adjacent properties; acoustic monitoring in sensitive Navy areas; development in an explosive stand-off buffering area or accident potential zones; and land development that pushes endangered species onto military lands.

The program employs “buffer partnerships” that include the DoD, private conservation groups, universities, and state and local governments. Also involved, often as additional funders, are other federal departments: Homeland Security, Energy, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce; and agencies, for example, the Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). REPI regards these as “win-win partnerships,” as they share the cost of land or acquire easements to preserve compatible uses and natural habitats, without interfering with bombing or other essential training exercises. In addition to the helpful funding, the military can muster impressive influence over local development authorities, town councils, and adjacent landowners.

We are reminded of the importance of networks in our political system, and their potential to dilute democratic control. Significant partners in REPI and related projects are quasi-governmental organizations (for example, local economic development corporations), regional associations, and nonprofit organization coalitions, such as the Southeast Regional Partnership for Planning and Sustainability, the Western Regional Partnership, the California Defense Communities Alliance (which works with the Governor’s Military Council), the Washington Military Alliance, and National Council of State Legislatures.

Through FY 2018, the Military Services have combined $857 million in DoD funds with over $788 million in non-Department partner contributions to protect more than 586,000 acres of land, safeguarding vital operating, test, and training assets and capabilities.

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There are more than 93 REPI projects in 33 states; here are a few examples:

At Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the “Maneuver School of Excellence,” (as well as the notorious School of the Americas, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), live-fire and other training was threatened by threatened species and their habitats. Now the base and its partners are restoring habitat and offering contiguous land for buyers who would use the land for recreation. Among the partners are the Georgia Land Trust, The Conservation Fund, the Alabama Land Trust, and the Nature Conservancy (TNC).

Nationwide, TNC is likely the conservation organization with the greatest amount of funding from the DoD. The TNC grants for Fort Benning alone included (but were not limited to) one for  $11,115,000, and another for $55,517,470. Both were described as: “Assist State and local governments to mitigate or prevent incompatible civilian land use/activity that is likely to impair the continued operational utility of a Department of Defense (DoD) military installation.”

Georgia also hosts the Townsend Bombing Range, with “airspace that spans 10 counties.” The partnership has protected an “ecologically sensitive area” and habitat to the “gopher tortoise and other rare species.” Partners include Ducks Unlimited, Georgia Ornithological Society, National Wild Turkey Federation, The Environmental Resources Network, and The Nature Conservancy.

Washington State, very receptive to military activities, despite the Hanford nuclear disaster area, has several REPI projects. One of them, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, on Puget Sound, is to eliminate the “threat” to live-fire exercises and other missions coming from imperiled species and incompatible development. The extensive area beyond its 91,000 acres became a designated “Sentinel Landscape,” a partnership headed by Departments of Agriculture, Defense, and Interior to “align resources” to protect military testing “while benefiting ALL partners and landowners.” The acquisition of buffer land will enable prairie habitat restoration, and easements on agricultural land will allow working farms those uses that are compatible with the military mission. The partners for this project include Evergreen State College, Oregon Zoo, Sustainability in Prisons, The Nature Conservancy, Washington Veterans Conservation Corps, and Wolf Haven International.

The REPI project in Maine serves the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School, which trains those at high risk of capture. This training requires a harsh climate in an isolated wilderness to teach skills needed for long term land survival. The School also provides training in resistance to interrogation, indoctrination, and exploitation. The Navy is working with the Trust for Public Land to obtain conservation easements that will remove or prevent intruding commercial activities on adjacent land. Partners include Maine Audubon Society, Mountain Conservancy Collaborative, and Trout Unlimited.

The Defense Department has several other programs designed to prevent interference with live ammunition, bombing ranges, and other military activities. One is the Legacy Resource Management Program, which seeks civilian partners to help protect endangered species and “to promote stewardship of our nation’s. . . cultural heritage.” Already “The Department of Defense manages thousands of National Register of Historic Places-listed properties. . .” Also working with REPI is the DoD’s Office of Economic Adjustment; its Joint Land Use Studies Program helps local communities to avoid interfering with military operations by their civilian activities.

The military has a poor reputation as regards the environment—we think about the Marshall Islands, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, poisoned aquifers, toxic waste burns, underwater sonar, and much more. It has paid attention to the criticisms. It still engages in its former ways, including the world record of oil consumption and extensive toxic emissions, but now there is a soft cop.

The DoD now emphasizes its need for natural landscapes for realistic training, its wish to avoid displacing or accidently bombing locals, and its help in protecting endangered species. However it does not want any environmental restrictions to poke into its activities. The military wants more land, airspace, and ocean clearance, and will make concessions. It uses the carrot, and the commanding influence of military power. The REPI Program supplies funds and also leverages contributions from state and local governments and conservation organizations, which are henceforth partners.

The military budget, in addition to funding the major weapons contractors, offers contracts or grants to every type of small, medium, and large business, educational and medical institutions, publishers, local governments, charities, and environmental and many other nonprofit organizations. Contractor philanthropy also helps to fund nonprofit organizations and public education. Investments in the major contractor corporations enrich individuals, organizations, and public pension funds. DoD outlays (along with the subsidies and contracts of other federal departments), are now a major support for our “free enterprise” economy. Elected representatives and administration officials at every level are aware of this lethal “lifeline.”

Another reason for compliance with DoD projects is that military organization is often a useful way of getting things done. It does not await some person or group calculating that a profit can be made from an activity, or sufficient personnel with longstanding ambitions to be ditchdiggers or bomb mechanics, or immigrants to pick the crops and pluck the chickens, or enthusiastic taxpayers or private donors to provide funds to repair a collapsing bridge. The railways in France, built by the military, have a more rational configuration than the US “private enterprise with government subsidies” railroad hodgepodge.

The US military does not rely on cost-benefit considerations when it has an objective, so its lavish use of resources can be startling. Yet its generosity insures that there are many willing contractors for its enormous outsourced needs. It is more bureaucratic, meritocratic, and favorable to minorities than the private sector, and gives preferences in its contracts to minority and women-owned businesses, and those in impoverished areas. In contrast, our “democratic” politics, a combination of special interest feudal-like patronage and charismatic power, provides little inducement for getting the most important things done, or to respond effectively to crises.

Nevertheless, there are serious concerns about the REPI project, and similar ones that partner with civilian governments and nongovernmental environmental organizations. First of all, by publicizing its protection of red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises and others, their habitats, working farmlands, forests, and wetlands, the DoD emits a dust cloud over the intense environmental destruction of land, sea, and air resulting from military operations and their preparations. Militarization is worldwide and beyond, into space. In addition to the contribution of the US, other nations’ militaries are increasing in size, activities, and lethality. Many have been armed by us, or against the threat of us; some in response to other perceived threats.

Close to home, there is chemical and noise pollution from live ammunition training, even when “things don’t go wrong.” The buffer zones are supposed to provide adjacent communities protection against stray attacks, but that fails from time to time. Toxic wastes are produced (and not sequestered) at many US domestic bases; our military has granted us the bulk of superfund sites. As Joshua Frank has stated:

US military sites, which total more than 50 million acres, are among the most insidious and dangerous Pentagon legacies. They are strewn with toxic bomb fragments, unexploded munitions, buried hazardous waste, fuel dumps, open pits filled with debris, burn piles and yes, rocket fuel.

One continuing devastation in New England emanated from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod. The base contaminated the aquifer that provided drinking water to year-round and seasonal residents. Superfund cleanup began in the 1990s and is still not complete; the EPA puffs that the treatment is powered by wind energy.

Another major concern about REPI and other military “partnerships” with civilian institutions and terrain is that it erodes the boundaries, however weak these days, between civil and military.  Might the US be turning into a banana republic or a military dictatorship? Penetration is not new; the US Army Corps of Engineers have been developing and maintaining recreational lakes and flood control projects for a long time. However, the military is slowly expanding into every nook and cranny of civilian life. While undoubtedly a golden handshake to an economy where the “invisible hand” is withered, this consensual penetration creates silent partners. Silent to the military’s aggressive invasions, bombings, assassinations; to its quest for an upgraded nuclear arsenal; to its violations of international law; and to the destruction of lands, wildlife, and people, whether civilians or warriors, as well as the deaths or the mutilations in mind and body of our own troops.

Despite its ability to get things done, the fatal flaw of the military lies in its goals. “The mission of the Department of Defense is to provide a lethal Joint Force to defend the security of our country and sustain American influence abroad.” Why not a mission, using the enormous power and resources of our nation, to cooperate with other nations and through diplomacy, international organizations, and law, to create a peaceful world?