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Marines Say Combat Training Suffers

Military: Officials point to a study that finds large areas of Camp Pendleton are off-limits to protect a growing list of species.

April 20, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMP PENDLETON — As the Pentagon lobbies Congress for relief from the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws, the military points to this sprawling base as a prime example of how such laws have severely disrupted combat training.

While the military has made similar claims in the past, now the Marine Corps has a study that it says proves that training is being undercut because large areas of the base are off-limits to protect a growing list of species.

"We need the ability to train as we fight," said Lt. Col. Mike Lynch, a Marine Corps planner. "An inability to conduct realistic training puts Marines in jeopardy."

Preliminary results from a study conducted by Marine officials and Newport Beach-based SRS Technologies found that in what were once prime training zones, Marines can no longer receive adequate training in 32% to 50% of the several hundred tasks necessary for an amphibious landing.

Restrictions on digging, noise and off-road maneuvers are the most severe, the study concluded.

According to Marine officials, a pending lawsuit by more than 30 environmental organizations could have the effect of designating more than half of the base as protected habitat.

Jim Bartel, supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service field office that oversees the base, said, that the service already has excluded Camp Pendleton from most critical habitat designations--land with special protections for animals and plants listed under the Endangered Species Act. Bartel said that of the base's approximately 125,000 acres, 6,322 have been designated as protected habitat for wildlife.

"We've continued to work cooperatively with the base so that we can both conserve species and they can continue to do their critical training," Bartel said.

But Marine officials note that the restricted acreage is nearly all in coastal training zones and that much of the rest of the base is composed of mountains and bombing ranges that are unsuitable for troop training.

While the base has the ability, in many instances, to move training exercises away from environmentally sensitive areas, Marine officials are concerned that more species could be added to the protected list and larger areas ruled off-limits.

"Our mission is not to create a nature preserve, it's to train Marines," said Michael Collier, director of the base training resource management division.

Dan Meyer, general counsel of the Washington-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, immediately branded the study as worthless and accused the Marine Corps of manufacturing a crisis by refusing to adequately fund programs to build alternative training areas or to relocate endangered or threatened species. "I don't buy it," Meyer said of the Marine Corps assertion that training is being hurt.

Within its boundaries, Camp Pendleton must contend with numerous obstacles to training: Interstate 5, a state park, the San Onofre nuclear power plant, hundreds of Native American architectural sites and thousands of acres of farmland.

But the species and habitat restrictions are of particular concern because they have grown in recent years and could grow even more because of lawsuits. Also, such restrictions tend to affect coastal locations that are prime training areas for an amphibious fighting force.

Camp Pendleton is home to 18 endangered or threatened species, including the Pacific pocket mouse, the Stevens kangaroo rat, the Arroyo toad and the Southwestern willow flycatcher.

Although other bases might disagree, Camp Pendleton prides itself in being the busiest U.S. military base in the world: with training going on 360 days a year and 40,000 troops using its 100 live-fire ranges, 30 maneuvering areas and four amphibious landing beaches.

In 1973, when the Endangered Species Act was passed, the base had three such species on the original list but more species have been added by the fish and wildlife service, sometimes over objections from military planners.

Largely because of its long coastline and temperate climate, San Diego County has an unusually large array of endangered or threatened species--37, according to the fish and wildlife service. And many of these species live, breed or nest in the beach areas, where the Marine Corps trains for what, by law, is its primary military mission: putting thousands of troops and tons of fighting gear on shore quickly and possibly while under attack.

The Marine Corps says that of its 17 miles of shoreline, only 1,500 yards (about 6%) are free of restrictions. Some restrictions are temporary, such as ones during nesting season, but others, particularly those for habitat, are virtually year-round.

For example, stretches of shore called Red Beach and White Beach, where Marines trained during World War II for the assault on Iwo Jima, are now restricted for months on end because they include nesting areas for the California least-tern and the Western snowy plover.

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