|The Greening of the Military|
|Tuesday, 27 May 2014 00:00 | Written by Steven Kotler | Commentary|
Here's the problem with wildlife—they prefer things wild. Turns out, undomesticated animals don't like roads or condos or, well, visitors. They thrive in what ecologists call "contiguous wilderness," meaning nature unbroken, uninhabited and, these days, highly unlikely. Take the Florida black bear; with a home range of close to 100 miles, this thing is no couch potato. But come on—100 miles of contiguous wilderness? With all the trees that need logging and the beachfront property that needs developing, isn't that just a tad excessive?
And even if it's not excessive, even if you're someone who likes to walk in the woods without having to worry about strip malls or recent graduates from the Dick Cheney School of Shooting Straight, where are you going to find that much uninterrupted landscape in Florida? That's pretty much the whole of the state's Panhandle, from the Alabama border to the Apalachicola National Forest. Save for Ted Turner, who has that kind of property lying around?
Well, the Department of Defense (DoD) for one. With close to 30 million acres at their disposal, the Pentagon is one of the largest landowners in America. And in the very Panhandle we're speaking about—an area considered to be one of the six most important biologically diverse regions left in the United States (housing 75 percent of the state's plant species, 23 endangered and 13 threatened species)—the military has five major installations: Eglin and Tyndall Air Force Bases, Whiting Field, Pensacola Naval Air Station and the Naval Surface Warfare Center, comprising almost half-a-million acres. And, as it turns out, protecting this habitat is exactly what they have in mind.
This is a long-term project, known as the Northwest Florida Greenway, backed not only by the DoD, but also the state of Florida and a consortium of environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund. Its goal is to link wildlands from Apalachicola to Eglin Air Force Base into one giant preserve serving a triumvirate of needs. The DoD would preserve critical flyways for 45,000 annual flight-training exercises; the state collects the annual $5.6 billion these five bases add to its coffers; and the greens get, well, much more green. Perhaps the biggest gift, as far as the whole of the country is concerned, is the serious shift in DoD thinking reflected by the Greenway.
"Since WWI there's been a feeling in the military that what happened on bases was the military's problem," says Bob Barnes, an ex-Brigadier General with more than 30 years of Army experience who has since become a senior policy advisor for the Nature Conservancy, "but what happened off base was none of their business. Now the military has come to understand that the whole environment needs to be their business."
The reasons for this are both environmental and economic. Because those 30 million DoD acres are used for training purposes and the armed forces work with the mantra: "train as we fight, fight as we train," it's important they remain wild—thus mimicking real-world conditions. Since wildlands are something animals love, but are now real-world rare, there are over 340 endangered species found on military bases—more than exist on any other parcel of government land (the Bureau of Land Management controls 250 million acres, with only about 170 endangered species). Most of these bases were first established in remote areas, but urban sprawl has given the military less room to maneuver—a big problem since modern warfare covers much ground and the troops need plenty of space to practice.
So the DOD, working with the Nature Conservancy, has been setting up buffer zones around a half-dozen bases and striving to move those threatened species toward recovery (meaning both increasing numbers and extending habitat). Not because they're good guys—though Barnes and others have pointed out that in an all-volunteer Army, it's often outdoorsy types who enlist—but because it makes good sense, economic and otherwise. Buffer zones mean healthier species with larger territories that, in turn, mean more flexibility for military training exercises, bombing practice and anything else hard to accomplish when you're trying not to kill spotted owls or rare woodpeckers or anything else that might get in the way.
To give you an idea of this buffer program's success, it didn't exist in 2004. The following year, it was funded at $12 million. In 2006, despite massive defense cuts, the budget was increased to $37 million. And protecting species is only one part of a much bigger program. Currently, the Army is doing everything from slashing the amount of heavy metals used in Stryker tanks to mandating that all new buildings utilize renewable resources.
The Army Corps of Engineers is involved with the Nature Conservancy in the "Sustainable Rivers Project," a 40-river attempt to remove dams, restore wetlands and introduce a level of watershed management that's never been a part of the Corps mandate. Then there's the Air Force, which has become the largest user of wind power in America and recently announced plans to test alternative jet fuels—no small measure when you consider that the military consumes one percent of all the fuel used in America.
Not to be outdone, the Navy recently purchased four giant (275 foot tall) wind turbines for their base at Guantanamo Bay, which will generate an annual haul of almost eight million kilowatt-hours of electricity, thus reducing fuel consumption by 650,000 gallons and air pollution by 26 tons of sulfur dioxide, 15 tons of nitrous oxide, and greenhouse-gas emissions by 13 million pounds annually. And this is a much abridged list; in fact, what's really going on is a total eco-friendly restructuring that covers the entire DoD, from the Pentagon on down.
In fact, as Assistant Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Alex Beehler pointed out, "In 2005, then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz signed a directive that said the DoD is responsible for improving the environment both inside and outside the fence-line. A few months later, Donald Rumsfeld spoke at a cooperative conservation conference in St. Louis that was called by then-President Bush. It was the first time in a long time, maybe ever, that a Secretary of Defense has ever spoken publicly about the environment."
Considering the amount of land, products and people the military impacts, this kind of radical restructuring (what Bob Barnes calls a "tectonic shift in policy") has the chance to really push America over the eco-friendly tipping point, but that doesn't mean there aren't still problems. A study done in 2003 found that one in ten Americans live within 10 miles of a hazardous-waste site of military origin and, under the Bush administration, the Pentagon has lobbied for exemptions from the Migratory Bird Act, the Clean Air Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act and the superfund liability legislation known as CERCLA.
President Obama has started to turn things around, but it’s still too early to tell what that really means. Until then, detractors like recent Goldman Prize (the Nobel of environmental issues) winner and head of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, Craig Williams, is quick to say, "We appreciate the military's recent sensitivity to these issues, but that doesn't mean there isn't a long way to go."
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