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California and the West

Dispute Grows Over Wildlife at Marine Bases

September 15, 2000|TONY PERRY and SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN DIEGO — The Marine Corps and a coalition of environmental groups are locked in regulatory combat over the future of the California gnatcatcher and the San Diego fairy shrimp at Camp Pendleton and the Miramar air station.

Environmentalists want the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restrict training, housing and other activities on parts of the bases because the sage-covered ground and seasonal ponds represent critical habitat for the bird and crustacean.

But the Marine Corps, which has been praised by federal officials for its efforts to save dozens of varieties of birds, mammals and reptiles, is asking Fish and Wildlife for an exemption from certain provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

To the dismay of the environmentalists, the Corps argues that its own species conservation plan is a better way to preserve endangered wildlife and allow training to continue at the bases.

With the battle lines drawn, Fish and Wildlife has promised a decision by Sept. 30 on the gnatcatcher and by Oct. 15 on the fairy shrimp. Decisions on the Arroyo Southwestern toad and tidewater goby will come later.

At issue is whether the government will designate hundreds of thousands of acres of public and private land in Southern California as critical to the survival of one or more of the species.

If the past is any indication, the Marine Corps may have a tactical advantage in the dispute.

U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, whose authority includes the Fish and Wildlife Service, has both praised Camp Pendleton as a model for how military bases should deal with environmental issues and opposed the critical-habitat approach to conservation.

In recent years, Babbitt presented Pendleton's commanding general with a ceramic statue of an eagle as a token of his appreciation for efforts at the base to protect a half-dozen imperiled species: the least Bell's vireo, the Southwestern willow flycatcher, the California least tern, the arroyo toad, the tidewater goby and the snowy plover.

Among other steps, the base has ruled certain portions of its 17-mile shoreline off-limits to training during the birds' mating season.

In some housing areas, Marines and their families are not allowed to own cats and dogs, lest the pets dine on the birds. Bamboo has been chopped down because it was choking willow trees that are needed for nesting.

Rather than create an inviolable map of critical habitat areas, the base has opted for a plan whereby the Marine Corps is allowed flexibility. If the Marines need a certain area for training, they set aside other areas to offset any negative effect on wildlife.

But 41 environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, insist that this has given the Marine Corps too much leeway to destroy habitat. One example, they say, is that 116 vernal pools--seasonal ponds where the freshwater fairy shrimp live--at Miramar have been destroyed for housing.

The groups are also worried that exempting Camp Pendleton and Miramar from the Endangered Species Act would "set a terrible precedent" for other property owners seeking exemptions.

"We question why the Marines deserve special-treatment exemption from the nation's premier wildlife protection law," said David Hogan of the San Diego office of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The Marine Corps has an answer that, in previous land-use disputes, has been a powerful political trump card: national security.

Maj. Brad S. Bartelt, Camp Pendleton spokesman, said: "The critical habitat proposals are unacceptable given their potential impact to our military mission."

In a letter this week to Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the environmental coalition painted a gloomy picture of what will happen if the Marines are not blocked from using habitat areas.

"Habitat loss will inevitably continue at both bases as the Marines continue to construct training facilities and to carry out their mission," wrote Hogan on behalf of the coalition. "Habitat loss will also regularly occur as a result of unauthorized activities."

But Jan Larson, director of natural resources for the San Diego-based Navy Region Southwest, said the two bases deserve an exemption from the Endangered Species Act because they are required to comply with a federal law concerning military bases and the environment.

That law, he said, allows flexibility in land use but holds the military accountable to the Fish and Wildlife Service for the preservation of "entire ecosystems, not just individual species habitat."

"We feel our planning is already much more comprehensive than the Endangered Species Act," Larson said. "It's not like we can do whatever we want, whenever we want."

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