WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (UPI) — The Pentagon plans to ask Congress to loosen environmental laws governing military training bases on the grounds they are interfering with military readiness, it was reported Monday.

While the military is obligated to adhere to endangered species and habitat regulations, the Washington Post said the Pentagon believes that the laws also restrict the ability of troops to carry out important training exercises.

“Protecting natural resources is not incompatible with protecting access to the land, air and sea space necessary for that realistic combat training,” said Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Raymond DuBois. “The military readiness issue here sometimes gets lost.”

Military bases that cover vast coastal and desert areas have in recent years become the last open space available to many species as urban expansion marches on in surrounding areas, particularly in the Southwest where installations founded during the World War II era have been gradually surrounded by growing cities.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported last week that the Marine Corps was exploring the purchase or lease of lands on the sparsely populated Hawaiian island of Molokai for use in amphibious exercises involving updated landing vehicles and the VA-22 Osprey troop transport aircraft.

Military bases are governed by the 1973 Endangered Species Act and by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects migrating birds that use bases for stopovers.

Conservationists last autumn were able to help convince the House of Representatives to reject a provision in the Defense Authorization Act for 2003 that the environmental lobby contended would undermine the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s jurisdiction over military bases.

According to the Post, the administration changed its tactics and planned to introduce its to the Republican-controlled Congress early in the latest session and then conduct a long-running lobbying effort to convince opponents to change their minds on the grounds of national security.

“While we are arguably one of the best environmental stewards in the government today,” DuBois said, “there is a first and foremost obligation that the secretary of defense has, and that is to properly prepare our troops for combat.”

Environmentalists told the Post they were reluctant to blindly trust the military to continue to protect habitat without the force of law, and others have voiced concerns that exempting the military from conservation laws would open a legal door to increased grazing and development on lands run by other federal agencies.

“This could set the terrible precedent that other federal agencies or private interests could appeal to the Interior Department to secure their own special regulations exempting themselves from the law,” the Endangered Species Coalition said last October when the Migratory Bird Treaty exemptions were being debated.

The Post said that the administration’s further efforts to exempt the military from environmental rules would hinge largely on a recent General Accounting Office report that concluded there was indeed encroachment on military bases by environmental rules, however the Pentagon has been unable to document specifically how that encroachment has harmed training and overall military readiness.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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