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Changes in law environmental friendly

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Jan. 26, 2004) -- Portions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2004 make it easier for the Air Force to execute its mission while protecting the environment at the same time.

The act includes language allowing the National Fish and Wildlife Service to legally consider measures that may already be in place at an Air Force installation when making a decision about how best to protect endangered species, Maureen Koetz said. She is the deputy assistant secretary of environment, safety and occupational health.

The fairy shrimp is a small, soft-bodied crustacean that lives in vernal pools, seasonal wetlands that fill with water during fall and winter rains. (Center for Biological Diversity)

"This enables us to manage species effectively through our Integrated Natural Resources Management Plans without having to be concerned about critical habitat zoning coming in and removing larger tracts of land from our ability to use them," Ms. Koetz said.

The Air Force has INRMPs in place at its installations, she said. When developing an INRMP, plan authors take into account the needs of endangered species and the needs of the Air Force. With an INRMP in place, endangered species are able to thrive while at the same time, the Air Force is able to carry out its readiness mission.

"An INRMP allows us to preplan and pre-position how we are going to utilize our resources," Ms. Koetz said.

An INRMP also takes into account such things as archeological sites, biodiversity, bio-habitats and wetlands, Ms. Koetz said.

"We look at the whole site picture and identify the parts we will use for military activity and areas we will maintain for conservation status, and we will make those things work together," she said.

Before the act, recognizing the effectiveness of an INRMP was not an official option for the Fish and Wildlife Service, though officials did consider the plans as part of their own internal policy. Federal environmental laws directed the service to use methods such as zoning the portions of a military installation where endangered species are present as critical habitat.

A critical habitat designation puts restrictions and limitations on how Air Force land can be used, Ms. Koetz said. The result is that the Air Force may be denied access to its resources.

"A critical habitat designation or another requirement that compels us to set our land aside for something other than a military readiness use essentially … acts as a limitation," Ms Koetz said. "It's no different than if somebody came along and declared your backyard to be [a] playground for the entire neighborhood. Then it is zoned differently. Then you have to reorganize how you use your backyard because society has come along and changed how it is to be used."

That denial of resources, she said, leads to operational risks, reduction of available space and limitations on training and readiness activities. To compensate, the Air Force must pay for relocation of activities, and must rent or purchase equipment that can be used in smaller places.

More than just readiness activities can be affected by critical habitat. Simple day-to-day maintenance activities can also be affected, said Lt. Col. Alan R. Holck, Air Force conservation program manager.

In California, the presence of vernal pools could have had large portions of two installations declared as critical habitat, he said.

Vernal pools are areas that fill with water on a seasonal basis, Colonel Holck said. During the time the pools have water in them, unique flowers and invertebrates such as the fairy shrimp spring to life.

"At Travis Air Force Base in California, FWS proposed that nearly all of the installation -- short of the runways -- be marked as critical habitat to protect the vernal pools," Colonel Holck said. "Included in that was base housing. To do things like yard and grounds maintenance you would have had to get permission from FWS."

At California’s Beale AFB, only 25 percent of the installation would have fallen under critical habitat.

"We convinced FWS and the local wildlife agencies that we could manage and protect the pools ourselves and still carry out the mission," Colonel Holck said. "We didn't need the restrictions that critical habitat would place on us to successfully manage these species."

With the changes under NDAA '04, the FWS can now consider Air Force INRMPs an effective method for managing endangered species. This change allows the Air Force and other Department of Defense activities to continue acting as investors in the environment.

"Most people, including many environmental organizations, don't understand the valuable environmental equity that has been created by the way DOD manages its lands," Ms. Koetz said. "We are investors in our environment -- equity developers. It is precisely because the Air Force or the Army or the Navy put a fence around a certain area and maintain it as a military installation that there are extraordinarily valuable biodiversity, wetland, groundwater recharge, and coastal ecosystem resources that continue to exist and be available."