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Nature and the war machine

August 27, 2005|Julie A. Craves | JULIE A. CRAVES is supervisor of avian research for the Rouge River Bird Observatory of the University of Michigan-Dearborn and a contributing editor of Birder's World magazine.

THESE DAYS, as increasing numbers of Americans disapprove of the Iraq war and buckets of U.S. tax dollars are poured into defense spending, it's worth noting when we hear positive news about the war machine.

A recent article on, a website of the publisher of the journal Nature, reported that military exercises are good for certain endangered species, according to a presentation to the Ecological Society of America by Steven Warren of Colorado State University and the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands.

This is because, supposedly, unlike national parks, military lands contain habitats that are created by, uh, disturbances, such as fires from bombs and deep ruts from tank maneuvers. These cater to species that require such habitats.

Yes, I thought, it's hard to imagine a faster or more effective creator of these habitats than rigorous military exercises.

I read the Nature piece while I was in Panama, where the armed forces are unintentionally engaged in another type of habitat renewal. Remarkably, I had just learned that much of the former U.S. military land along the Panama Canal, which had been turned over to the Republic of Panama in 2000, is being left undeveloped. The open land preserves the tropical forests needed to maintain the hydrology of the canal, and consequently the impressive biodiversity of these lands. But protecting the canal isn't the only reason for shunning development.

At the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's Barro Colorado Island station, I was told by a stoic Panamanian that, in fact, humans are permanently restricted from 7,700 acres of these old U.S. practice ranges because of the danger of unexploded ordnance.

There, of course, was a required cleanup before the United States left, but only "to the extent practicable." I thought, hey, maybe it's a good thing the U.S. is still arguing over the definition of "practicable." Even conservation easements can be broken and national parks exploited.

Unexploded ordnance is a sure-fire way to prevent human intrusion on wildlife preserves. In the same vein, most of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge in Puerto Rico, formerly a naval bombing range, is off-limits to the public because of contamination and live munitions.

Of course, all of this is just part of a bigger story about the military and the environment that's not so cheerily simple.

For instance: Disturbed habitats are vastly more common than pristine ones in the real world, and competent nonmilitary land managers utilize fire and other carefully crafted habitat alterations to maximize the viability of endangered species. And although the Department of Defense controls 25 million acres in the U.S. alone, providing havens for many species, its stewardship is forced, its compliance with environmental laws mandatory and often not willing.

The Pentagon, backed by the White House, has vigorously lobbied Congress for exemptions to the Clean Air, Superfund, Migratory Bird Treaty and Endangered Species acts -- and been granted some of them -- since the beginning of the Iraq war. The loss of protection for species and habitats on military installations may be with us long after the war is over.

As for Panama, the United Nations estimates that 100,000 people are at risk from unexploded ordnance in former U.S. military lands.

The Vieques refuge is so contaminated (with industrial solvents, sewage and more) that it has been proposed as a Superfund site.

And, oops, let's not forget the number of animals that might get blown to smithereens by land mines and bombs-that-might-not-be-duds left behind by Uncle Sam, such as snow leopards being exterminated in Afghanistan and exploding tigers in Cambodia.

A silver lining in the clouds of war? On second thought, never mind.

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