Green Laws Threaten to Surround Fort Hood

In March, the 4th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army was delayed on its way to Iraq when the Turkish government refused to allow U.S. forces to cross its territory.

When it arrives home at Fort Hood, Tex., however, the division will encounter obstacles set up by U.S. politicians. The Army says that environmental laws now affect in some way 84% of the training land at Fort Hood and that on 77% of the land training practices are actually impacted because of it.

So far, the Army has been able to work around the environmental restrictions. But that could change if another endangered species is discovered on the base.

This month, the Senate Armed Services Committee will take up legislation designed to ease environmental restrictions on military bases, a problem that has threatened training on many facilities in addition to Fort Hood. (See Human Events: "Environmental Restrictions Hamper Training of U.S. Troops," Dec 2, 2002, page 5.)

Fort Hood, not far from President Bush’s ranch at Crawford, Tex., is the largest U.S. military base when measured by personnel. It is home to the Army’s III Corps to which the 4th Infantry Division belongs.

Sixty-eight different environmental laws now affect Ft. Hood, said Col. Bill Perry, who as garrison commander is responsible for base infrastructure. "What that means is the troops can train as long as they stay within the control measures we’ve established to conform to environmental laws," he said. If they don’t, he said, they risk "getting me cross-wise with the environmentalists."

The Army has told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Readiness that 64% of Ft. Hood’s training area is under rules restricting digging. This results in "soldiers not actually digging fighting holes or equipment emplacements during basic and intermediate training," says a Pentagon fact sheet.

For the Birds

Large sectors of the base are preserved for birds. "The biological opinion issued under the Endangered Species Act for both the golden cheeked warbler and the black capped vireo restricts training on over 66,000 acres (33%) of training land," Brian Helmlinger of the Army Sustainable Ranges Program told Human Events. "These restrictions include no digging, no tree or brush cutting, and no ‘habitat destruction’ throughout the year on the entire core and non-core area. From March through August, vehicle and dismounted maneuver is restricted to established trails, and halts in restricted areas are limited to two hours in designated endangered species ‘core areas’-46,620 acres of the 66,000 acres are designated ‘core areas.’"

A Defense Department document on readiness explains why this matters: "The U. S. Armed Services fight as they train," it says. "Analysis of WWI and WWII combat data reveal that the probability of battlefield survival increases almost exponentially if one survived the first five engagements where shots were fired and someone hit. The purpose of training is to replicate those first five engagements in safety." When soldiers cannot replicate combat because of environmental rules, military readiness suffers, says Defense. "DoD seeks to maintain readiness while remaining environmentally responsible. But the defense of our nation is an imperative; other national goals cannot be achieved without it."

Perry said that unlike at some other military bases, training has not yet been severely compromised at Ft. Hood. "We benefit from our location," surrounded by open land which provides habitat for endangered species, he said. In addition, "we can contract with local landowners to use their land when ours is affected," he said. "Of course, if another endangered species pops up here [that could change]."

"Sometimes they can’t dig a foxhole in the specific area they would like to do it. I’m not allowed to fully train in the eastern area during the nesting season," he said. "In the eastern section of the installation, we have about 5,000 acres where whenever the bald eagle winters here, helicopters are not allowed to fly below 1,000 feet. You would probably always fly lower than 1,000 feet in attack mode."

Perry also has to contend with other interests imposing restrictions on Ft. Hood. For example, he has to worry about smoke obscuring roads or noise affecting neighbors.

Laws protecting "historical and archaeological artifacts" and the local water supply make training rules at Ft. Hood a patchwork, he said. "When a unit commander comes in with a [training] plan, I may ask him to adjust his plan or move his training to another location," he said.

"Artillery firing, smoke generation, and riot control grenades are prohibited within 100 meters of the boundaries of the designated ‘core areas,’" Helmlinger said. "Use of camouflage netting and bivouac [setting up camp] are prohibited across the entire ‘core area’" from March through August.

"Would I prefer that I didn’t have to worry about the environmental laws and regulations? You bet," Perry said.

The Pentagon names "endangered species and critical habitat issues that limit access to training lands" as its top "encroachment" issue affecting "training and testing activities."

Congressional sources say that the Pentagon is asking Congress not to rollback most environmental restrictions placed on military bases, but to freeze them. That would mean the Endangered Species Act listings currently impacting military training would remain in place, but a new species listing could not be used to shut down or confound training at Fort Hood, or at any other military facility. The one law the military would like to be exempted from is the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which could be used in many ways to obstruct the activities of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

"In fact, most of the proposals would continue policies that were originated and implemented by the Clinton Administration," says an analysis provided by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R.-Okla.).