THE PROTESTS AGAINST the bombing runs on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques continue daily. They started in 1999, when a marine jet made a wee mistake and dropped two bombs in the wrong place, killing a civilian security guard. That sort of made people touchy, even though apologies were issued all around.
"Hey, mistakes happen," does not really provide solace in that sort of situation.
The protesters say that the bombing runs damage the environment and stunt economic development on the island, perhaps because potential tourists fret about bombs dropping on their heads.
The military denies the problem. The Navy called the demonstrations "part of a multimillion-dollar smear campaign" directed by groups who want independence for Puerto Rico. "Most of these people have a political affiliation and their cause has nothing to do with Vieques," said spokesman Jeff Gordon.
Well, no. If you are dropping great big bombs on a small island despite the residents of said island asking you to stop, you are pretty much smearing yourself. You are trashing an island because you can, because you are strong and they are weak, because you have decided unilaterally that your need to bomb is greater than their need to live in peace.
I guess that would be "auto-smearing." A large government agency spends many millions of dollars to smear itself. Then people with a "political affiliation" (I guess the Navy thinks that's a bad thing) do not have to do any work at all. "We asked them to stop bombing us and they refused" is pretty good right there; no need for fiery speeches.
WE HAVE GONE through all this before; I even covered the story. The island in this case was Kahoolawe, off the coast of Maui. The time was the mid-'70s. It seems inconceivable now that the Navy would use an entire Hawaiian island as a private bombing range, particularly a place visible on a clear day from Lahaina.
But it happened. Native Hawaiians always had been unhappy about it, but they had little clout. When a bunch of those darned activists with political affiliations got interested, the story made the newspapers. And that made tourists nervous, and making tourists nervous is definitely not part of the Maui game plan.
Still, there were demonstrations, arrests, bitter statements from the Navy about outside agitators, solemn lectures about how important it was to our national security to bomb the hell out of Kahoolawe.
And then those statements became inoperative, and the bombing stopped. No one has blamed any subsequent failure of our armed forces on the Kahoolawe controversy.
But Hawaii is a state and Puerto Rico is not. Many powerful people are interested in preserving the image of Hawaii, a peaceful pocket paradise where the natives wiggle their hips and surf the day away. No politics here, boss! Here I am, your special island! Have a rum drink!
If Jack Lord had moved to San Juan, maybe things would be different.
THE COLONIAL DREAM dies hard. We stole this country fair and square, and our national mythology has turned that theft into a virtue. We trash the places where the people are powerless -- the citizens of rural Nevada and Micronesia have the same story to tell.
You'd turn into a stone libertarian too if your own Navy were bombing your island. You might even develop a political affiliation if your grandchildren were deformed from radiation poisoning.
The military is trained not to give back territory. That's the whole darn point of warfare. But we are, for better or worse, policing the world now. The enemies our size have disappeared. The citizens of Vieques are not enemies; adopting bellicose rhetoric is just dopey.
Stop the bombing, bring the troops home. Is there an echo in here?
IN THE ARIZONA DESERT, IT'S PRONGHORNS VERSUS F-16S
Fight between environmentalists and military over control of a bombing
range reverberates nationwide.
Dateline: BARRY M. GOLDWATER RANGE, ARIZ
From an observation tower that climbs 25 feet into the air, range
manager Col. David White talks of skill and preparedness.
Piercing the pale blue skies with a loud rumble, the F-16 fighter comes into view with a rush, pumping 50 to 100 bullets into the targets in a half-second burst before flying off.
"That guy's good, very good," says Colonel White, as the top gun pilot from Luke Air Force Base completed his training run. "That's what this is all about. To prepare people for when the bullets start to fly for real."
Amid the dust in the desert, a battle is raging between the military and environmentalists over who should control one of America's largest bombing ranges - one that sprawls over 1.6 million acres of Sonoran desert in southwestern Arizona.
Both sides agree that what happens at this key spot in Arizona could have a profound effect on how bombing ranges nationwide are managed. They say others may look to what happens in this desert place to guide future decisions elsewhere.
For now, the military has won the dogfight, getting Congress recently to hand over the reins of this biologically sensitive expanse. For the next 25 years, the military has primary responsibility to manage the range, used by pilots to train since 1941.
But environmentalists are not surrendering. And pressure on the military is stronger than ever.
In Puerto Rico, for example, protesters blocked the gates at Camp Garcia to prevent renewed exercises at a nearby naval bombing range.
The standoff ended Saturday, but protesters continue to demand closure of the range, which came under fire in April when a stray bomb accidentally killed a civilian.
And in Idaho, a federal judge last week approved an agreement between environmentalists and the military for expansion of the training range at Mountain Home Air Force Base. Under the deal, money will be set aside for environmental concerns and supersonic flights will be limited.
Military and environmentalists agree that the stakes are high on the Arizona bombing range, which has more than 600 endangered species and where important artifacts abound.
"We couldn't have an effective fighter force without the Goldwater range," says Col. Fred Pease, the US Air Force's chief of ranges and air space in Washington. "The real challenge is how do you conduct military training and testing and still be responsible. "That's what we're trying to do."
Environmental groups say the military needs to be watched closely.
"It is more important than ever that the military be held accountable for the resource management of the range, because they will be in charge for years to come," says Jeff Ruch, who heads Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington. "They need someone to pull them in if they get off track."
Conservationists still back a proposal that gives the National Park Service control of the range lands not used by the military. Six percent currently is used for bombing and other purposes. The plan would create a park preserve that would include Organ Pipe National Monument and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
Environmentalists say the park service would be a better steward of the land, because of its history of running other lands and the military's poor performance here.
Individuals met last week in Tucson, Ariz., to plot their latest moves, buoyed by proposed legislation from Arizona Sen. John McCain that calls for a two-year study of the best use for the land.
Backers say the legacy of the past should be enough to force change. As proof, the public employees group has cited a list of items alleging a "conscious disregard" for environmental and historic preservation in a complaint with the US Air Force Inspector General's Office.
Among the alleged abuses was the accidental dropping of a 2,000-poundbomb in an area supposed to be safe for public use. The military disputes these findings.
The military also faces a lawsuit by the Defenders of Wildlife that seeks to halt operations to protect the more than 150 endangered Sonoran pronghorn at the range.
"The cumulative effects of the military activities are taking their toll on the species, and we need oversight by the Department of Interior, the country's chief land steward," says Chandra Rosenthal, a lawyer with the group.
But military officials strongly defend their track record in caring for the natural and cultural resources at the range. That includes putting a biologist and archaeologist on staff. Overall, they estimate that $22 million has been spent since 1995.
They have met with public and special interests and many have a seat at the table when plans are put together. More meetings are scheduled as the military puts together a resource-management plan.
White, the range manager, says the military's commitment is strong and laws already on the books mandate that the lands will be protected.
For example, he says range officials check areas for the endangered pronghorn before bombing operations begin and call them off if the animals are discovered. Last year, 60 missions were cancelled and another 100 shifted.
"We will do the right thing," he says. "We will be good stewards of the land. It's just a matter of time before we can prove it. The past proves we've been serious, and I see nothing that will change that. Nothing."
By David H. Schwartz, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
WISCONSIN AFFILIATE ATTACKS EXPANDED BOMBING RANGE PLAN
The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, one of NWF's state affiliates, has
gone to war with the Air National Guard over plans to triple the size
of a practice bombing range in central Wisconsin.
The expansion would gobble up 10 square miles of county--and
privately-owned forest land that is popular for hunting, trapping and
recreation, says Bill Buckley, vice president of the Wisconsin
Wildlife Federation. Plans call for some 2,000 bombing runs a year at
low altitudes of only 300 to 500 feet.
Besides the obvious noise pollution, opponents are concerned about the
ongoing hazard of unexploded bombs and possible contamination from
products of combustion in ammunition, flares and rockets.
They also question the need for such expansion at a time when the
Defense Department is closing bases that already have bombing ranges
on them, Buckley says.
The Wisconsin Federation is working with a number of other citizens
groups that oppose the expansion, notably the HO-CHUNK Indian Nation,
which has several archaeological sites on the targeted land.
The Air National Guard promised to release a draft environmental
impact statement last March, but it has been delayed indefinitely,
WHAT TO DO WITH 2.7 MILLION ACRES OF DESERT?
Wild land has become so scarce that a military bombing range is now an
obscure object of desire for hunters, hikers, fighter pilots, off-road
vehicle users, and U.S. senators, who are all arguing over one of the
last, best places in the desert Southwest: the 2.7-million-acre Barry
M. Goldwater Range in southern Arizona.
The Goldwater range, on the Mexican border, is the last refuge in the
U.S. for the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope. Hunters traverse
its rocky trails in search of desert bighorn, deer, and javelina.
Biologists believe it is one of the few places in the Sonoran desert
unaffected by habitat fragmentation.
What most people don't know is that the Goldwater range is officially
administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Every 15
years, the military must prepare an environmental review to get
Congressional approval for "withdrawing" the land.
With a 2002 deadline looming, the Pentagon wants to change the rules:
Officials are proposing to "withdraw" the Goldwater range
indefinitely, which would exempt them from future environmental
reviews. To sweeten the deal, the military would return to the BLM a
90,000-acre tract called Area A--which biologists say is home to the
densest stand of saguaro cactus in the state. Conservationists are
fighting the proposal, citing concerns about the BLM's lack of funding
and personnel for resource management. There is also opposition to the
Pentagon's plan to cede the western half of the range to the U.S.
Marine Corps. The U.S. Air Force is currently the lead agency for the
Ironically, Dean Bibles, the retired head of the BLM's Arizona office,
is working with conservationists to keep the entire range under the
wing of the Air Force. He is one of a group of Southwestern desert
rats who are reviving a dream of former Arizona Rep. Morris K. Udall:
a Sonoran Desert National Preserve made up of the Goldwater range, the
860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the
330,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The U.S. Park
Service and the Air Force would comanage the preserve. Proponents say
hunting opportunities could even improve with consolidated management.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona supports a two-year study of the preserve
By Susan Zakin
Field & Stream
HOMING IN ON BIGHORN RANGE
Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus is angering former environmental allies
by backing the establishment of a new Idaho Training Range for the Air
Force to practice bombing raids and air-to-air combat. The proposed
range covers 25,000 acres of wilderness study areas in the Owyhee
Mountains managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Andrus believes
that, unless the training range is set up, the Pentagon will close the
Mountain Home Air Force Base, which annually adds about $1 billion as
well as many jobs to the state's economy. The base already has a
100,000-acre practice range, but the Air Force says that the range is
inadequate for realistic training. The Owyhee Mountains have the
nation's largest population of California bighorn sheep, several
rivers that are candidates for wild and scenic status, and more than
450 archaeological and cultural sites, some sacred to the
Shoshone-Paiute Indians. A draft environmental impact statement
recently released by the Air Force downplays the potential impacts of
the air traffic and practice bombs dropped over the territory,
according to local environmental groups trying to block the range's
establishment. A final impact statement should be released this
MILITARY USE OF PARKS, WILDERNESS PROPOSED
In several parts of the country, new military training areas are
proposed that overlap national parks and other sensitive public lands.
The state of Idaho and the Air Force are cooperating on plans for a
150,000 acre aerial range in the Owyhee Canyonlands. The high desert
plateau and canyon country contains world-class whitewater rivers,
archaeological sites, and abundant, diverse wildlife.
"The Owyhee is one of the largest areas of unprotected wildlands in
the country, and NPCA has said before that it should be considered as
a national park," said Dale Crane, NPCA Pacific Northwest regional
The Bureau of Land Management holds 90 percent of the land in
question. Under an exchange proposed by Gov. Cecil Andrus (D), Idaho
would acquire the land and transfer it to the Idaho National Guard.
The Guard would let the Air Force use it for a new composite wing of
bombers and fighters.
"In taking this route, they are trying to avoid the requirement for
congressional action," Crane said. The range includes 58,700 acres
under consideration as federal wilderness. By law, Congress must
approve the withdrawal of wilderness study areas and of any public
lands of more than 5,000 acres.
A practice bombing site will likely be placed between wilderness study
areas, and pilots will not drop live bombs. But throughout the area
will be supersonic overflights at 10,000 feet from the ground and
subsonic flights at 100 feet. The planes will drop chaff, hair-like
aluminum-coated fibers that deflect radar, and flares, used as missile
Chaff could be ingested by wildlife, fish, and livestock. Flares can
occasionally cause wildfires. There are concerns about the effects of
overflight noise and sonic booms on wildlife.
While BLM supports the proposal, a letter from its state office to the
Air Force criticized the lack of information provided on these points.
Crane said the Air Force's draft environmental impact statement also
did not examine other sites for the range.
Comments may be sent to Lt. Tom Bartol, Director of Environmental
Programs, Norton Air Force Base, CA 92409.
The Air Force has also proposed a 200-mile training corridor across
Utah canyonlands. The route would pass within three miles of Capitol
Reef National Park and across two wilderness study areas. Two B-52 and
two B-1B bombers would pass each weekday at altitudes of 400 to 600
"Bombers racing overhead would shatter the peace and the timeless
beauty that these lands have been set aside to preserve," said Terri
Martin, NPCA Rocky Mountain regional director.
The Air Force stated in its environmental assessment the plan would
have no significant environmental impact. But Rep. Wayne Owens
(D-Utah), NPCA, and Utah groups are calling for a more thorough
environmental impact statement to be performed.
Comments may be sent to George Gaugner, Environmental Planning
Division, Offut Air Force Base, NE 68113.
The Colorado Air National Guard is proposing a complex of "military
operations areas" across Colorado and Kansas. The primary "MOA" would
center on Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Planes would engage in
simulated aerial combat and drop chaff and flares. The Guard projects
that 24 times a year a group of 50 fighters, two to six bombers, and
ten support aircraft would practice in the Dunes "MOA" at altitudes as
low as 100 feet.
Of the monument's 38,000 acres, 33,000 are wilderness. "It would
basically destroy the wilderness experience," said Bill Wellman, park
The Park Service wrote, "Even now, the park experiences sporadic,
unauthorized military overflights." Visitors and local residents
describe sonic booms and being "buzzed" by aircraft.
The Forest Service states, "The use of chaff and flares...will impair
the area's natural condition [and] impair the water quality of streams
and lakes." It said increased flights would affect migrating and
calving ell and bighorn sheep and migrating waterfowl.
The Guard plans to do an environmental assessment, but Sen. Tim Wirth
(D-Colo.) and conservationists are urging an environmental impact
Comments may he sent to Major Stephen Krikorian, Colorado Air National
Guard, Buckley Air National Guard Base, Aurora, CO 80011.
All the above concerns are being voiced over an extensive military
training proposal for Alaska. Last fall the Army Corps of Engineers
released a preliminary statement on planned exercises involving all
Armed Forces branches and both ground and aerial training.
The statement, a first step before an environmental impact statement,
gives little concrete information. It appears the training areas cover
all or part of many national parks, preserves, and monuments,
including Denali, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Wrangell-St. Elias, Gates of
the Arctic, and Bering Land Bridge.
Mary Grisco, NPCA Alaska regional director, said it appears the
activities entail low-level flights, ground transport across wetlands,
rivers, and tundra, and use of live ammunition.