Can the Military Clean Up Its Act?

The military is working at becoming friend rather than foe to the wildlife on its lands-but toxic hot spots complicate the mission

  • Michael Tennesen
  • Oct 01, 1993
On a crisp winter afternoon, Dave Choate, a researcher working for the Orange County Cooperative Mountain Lion Study, stands on a high hill in Southern California's Santa Ana Mountains with a radio receiver, listening for signals from collared lions. Surrounding him is the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton, where an average of 175,000 men and women train each year. This is one of the busiest U.S. military bases in the world. Overhead, a squadron of fighter jets streaks toward the bombing range. All around are sounds of mortars, machine guns and exploding rockets.

Yet in spite of the noise, as much as 75 percent of Camp Pendleton's 125,000 square miles is a de facto wildlife refuge. The same is true of much of the Department of Defense's other 25.3 million acres, variously called bases, installations and reservations. Wildlife often thrives on these lands even with the turmoil of military training, and even despite the more insidious problem of toxic wastes from past military activity-including nearly 11,000 hazardous hot spots at 1,877 installations. Points out Gene Stout, a civilian wildlife biologist at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and chairman of the board of directors of the National Wildlife Federation, "To a degree, a squirrel, a deer and a soldier need the same kind of country in which to conduct their business."

Pendleton boasts important habitat, for instance, for a handful of mountain lions. Choate listens for their frequencies to study their movement patterns. "There," he says, pointing toward a signal coming from a ravine not more than 200 yards behind a barracks. "It's M9; he's our prime breeder. He's mated with at least four of our females."

At Pendleton, researchers like Choate have been part of the landscape for decades. Base authorities have long been aware that their 17 miles of raw shoreline, along with marshlands and chaparral-covered hills, form the last major biological oasis between Los Angeles and San Diego. There are populations of deer, quail, bobcats and buffalo (originally from the San Diego Zoo). The wetlands are critical stopovers for migrating waterfowl. Says the base's own civilian wildlife biologist, Slader Buck, "Pendleton has become a biological box where a number of Southern California's displaced species are making a last stand."

In recent years, prodded by federal laws, the Department of Defense has encouraged a cultural shift that makes nurturing the environment and wildlife a priority rather than a happenstance. Competition has never been so stiff for the department's annual Environmental Quality and Natural Resources Conservation awards, which go back to the 1970s. In 1991, the department started the Legacy Resource Management Program to help manage its resources. And the Army recently established the U.S. Army Environmental Strategy into the Twenty-First Century, which ensures that environmental considerations will in the future be part of all Army planning.

The teeth behind these moves started in 1960 with the Sikes Act, which authorized cooperation by the Department of Defense with the Department of the Interior and state wildlife agencies. In the 1970s, the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts mandated that the military take care of its lands. Then, in the fall of 1992, Congress passed the landmark Federal Facility Compliance Act, making government polluters subject to the same penalties as private companies.

The military's environmental awareness has become increasingly important to wildlife as development has crowded around the edges of once remote bases and installations. If you were to fly over Pendleton, you would see the effects of training that has gone on here since 1942-a crisscross of roads, wooded areas disturbed by frequent fires and impact zones pockmarked by artillery shells, bombs and rockets. And you would also see the checkerboard pattern of housing and shopping malls that practically outlines Camp Pendleton's boundaries with the civilian world.

You would likely see the same pattern at many of the military's other lands. From the mountain lions at Camp Pendleton to the green sea turtles at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina, wildlife is attracted to habitat where it doesn't compete as much with cattle, plows or concrete. The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation organization, estimates that 94 federally listed endangered or threatened species can be found on military lands.

At Camp Pendleton, oak trees spread out over tall native grasses that grow up to the level of the branches. Off base, grasses are grazed to the ground. On the base, mountain lions have adapted to live fire by sleeping in protected canyons by day, hunting by night and avoiding open spaces like the centers of impact zones (where live fire is directed). Biologist Buck is in charge of eight different endangered species, including the largest populations in the world of the California least tern and the Bell's vireo.

Deer and other wildlife become accustomed to training activities. Endangered least terns nesting on the beaches, for instance, ignore the giant amphibious landing vehicles (amtracks) that occasionally roll by. That is not to say there aren't casualties. Amtracks have rolled over nests. Buffalo have been killed by previously unexploded shells. But for the most part, nests are untouched-and even impact zones can be prime wildlife habitat, since the explosions keep out people and livestock.

At Fort Sill in Oklahoma, the Army's busiest artillery training installation, where 40,000 people train annually, "the centers of the impact zones are pockmarked like the moon," says Gene Stout. "But surrounding those areas are buffer zones, and at Fort Sill those buffer zones contain pure tall grass prairie looking much like it did when the pioneers crossed this country."

Those grasses provide habitat for the largest northern harrier (marsh hawk) winter roost in the world-as many as 1,000 birds. Though some of the base's 1,200 to 1,600 white-tailed deer do wander into the center of impact areas and get killed, deer populations are far more numerous than in surrounding areas. A prime wild-turkey roost is located surprisingly close to a strafing area, just beyond the range of fire.

Public access to military installations is controlled and limited. Military lands are generally better patrolled than public lands, and so poaching is reduced. And military personnel are under military laws and courts which deal out harsher punishments than the civilian counterparts. Says one Air Force colonel, "We're kind of mean SOBs if you break the rules."

Still, the property is not all clean and rosy. With last year's passage of the Federal Facilities Compliance Act, military bases' handling of toxic materials is under new scutiny. Last June, for example, the state of California proposed fining six bases $750,000 for violating state hazardous-waste handling procedures. Among the nearly 11,000 hazardous hot spots identified on military lands are 123 on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list of most hazardous sites. According to the EPA, one of those sites is Camp Pendleton itself, where some groundwater and soils are contaminated with volatile organic compounds, spent oils, fuels, PCBs, pesticides and metals.

Not much is known about the effects of military toxic contamination on wildlife. The Army does include study of impacts on wildlife in assessment of Superfund sites. But generally, according to a statement from the U.S. Army Environmental Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, "Wildlife field studies are rarely performed unless there has been noticeable and unusual wildlife mortality, failed breeding or physical disfigurement."

In one such case, waterfowl died in large numbers at the Eagle River Flats firing range at Fort Richardson, Alaska. The cause: white phosphorous poisoning from munitions fired in the past into the salt marsh, where it had settled into sediments instead of oxidizing. These days, the Army discourages waterfowl from landing in the area with cannon fire and an artificial grape flavoring that repels birds.

Elsewhere, military contamination ranges from unlined sludge pits to unexploded shells and bombs. At Corn-husker Army Ammunition Plant in Nebraska, high levels of toxic explosive compounds such as TNT and RDX (Research and Development Explosive) have been found in groundwater both below the plant and beyond the base. In a landmark 1989 case, three engineers at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland were convicted of environmental crimes. EPA inspectors found evidence that 200 different chemicals, some highly toxic, had been illegally dumped in a storm drain beyond the plant.

"Virtually every one of the military installations has some kind of contamination problem," says Seth Shulman, author of a recent book on the subject titled The Threat at Home: Confronting the Toxic Legacy of the U.S. Military. "It's important to see the whole picture. On the one hand, it's great that a lot of these military facilities are yet another relatively natural environment that wildlife can live in. The downside is that almost all these lands are terribly polluted. It's a sad irony."

Probably the most extreme example is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, just nine miles northeast of downtown Denver. The area is, according to Army Major Phil Soucy at the Pentagon, "the most polluted 21 square miles on the planet." The Army acquired the land during World War II and manufactured chemicals and weapons there until the 1960s, and Shell Chemical Company then leased some of the land to produce agricultural pesticides. Contamination of the groundwater was first discovered north of the arsenal in the mid-1950s, when crops started dying on nearby farms.

Today, fences and simulated distress calls warn wildlife away from poisons while the military attempts to remove toxic materials and to pump the ground water through filters so contaminants won't escape the base. Yet here are some 230 different animal species, including badgers, coyotes, mule deer, great horned owls and as many as 100 bald eagles. The base is now a national wildlife refuge, though the Army will remain until cleanup is completed. "It is superb wildlife habitat," says biologist Stout, "But I'm not sure I'd want to eat anything killed there. Underneath that soil are some serious toxic problems."

Environmental cleanup of these messes is extremely expensive and time consuming, and it is the fastest growing item in the military budget. No one knows just how much a complete cleanup of military lands would cost, but one Pentagon guesstimate puts the figure as high as $120 billion.

The good news is that these days, environmental impact statements are required for just about everything the military does, from major construction to maneuvers that last three days or more and involve more than 1,000 troops. Military wildlife biologists have access to resources most state and federal scientists only dream of. In the summer of 1992, for example, when wildlife biologists at Fort Irwin in California wanted to determine if female desert tortoises were bearing eggs, the Army speedily delivered a portable x-ray machine, a generator, and a spare veterinarian-as well as helicopter support later to survey the area.

And, says Army Major Soucy, "We have the advantage that we can issue orders. We can tell our people that from this day forward, underwear is to be worn on the outside. And in a reasonable amount of time we can expect everyone to comply." Fort Bragg in North Carolina had a history of repeated failures to consider critical nesting habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker in training activities. Now biologists are drilling nesting cavities for the birds, which otherwise must work for as long as two years to carve their own.

With the new awareness, one of the biggest new threats to the creatures that depend on the military's open spaces may be the proposed closing of bases, many of which are being eyed by developers. Though condominiums and malls may not benefit the wildlife, at least Congress has insisted the bases be cleaned up before they're turned over to civilians. And last summer, President Clinton included $2.2 billion for "fast-track" environmental cleanup as part of his $5 billion plan to aid communities affected by military base closings.

Still, huge amounts of land will remain under the military's jurisdiction. And these days, the nation's laws give wildlife friends in high places. Says Stout at Fort Sill, "Regulations require that base commanders manage their natural resources, and they've accepted it. You don't hear 'those damn environmentalists' any more."

California writer Michael Tennesen is author of Flight of the Falcon (Key Porter Books, 1993).

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