No Home on the Range

By Commander Eric Okerstrom, U.S. Navy


In search of a better quality of life, more and more people are moving onto land that would have been thought economically and environmentally inhospitable in the past. Las Vegas for example, had the second-fastest population growth rate of any city in the country—an astounding 80% between 1980 and 1992. In contrast, many of the nation's largest cities had much slower growth, especially the older industrial cities in the East and Midwest.

With the growth in population has come a corresponding increase in economic development and the emergence of new lifestyles. Growing tourism, with a demand for recreation and open-space amenities; changing retirement patterns; greater mobility facilitated by new information technologies; and improved access to rural areas are driving the changes taking place in the West.

These "New Westerners" are fulfilling their dreams of living and working away from the cities and suburbs. . . Surveys have shown that these new immigrants . . . favor more wilderness protection. They assign greater importance to natural landscapes and pristine views and dislike activities that alter the landscape, e.g., timber cutting, fencing, and mining.

Political candidates who protect the environment and maintain access to federal lands will be gaining support in the new West.

This burgeoning population and economic growth has led to a substantial increase in the demand for natural resources. The military, once somewhat immune to competing interests in these relatively remote areas of the country, has found itself confronted by a variety of public and private interests. Bases once thought to be "out in the boonies" are seeing substantial development growing around them.

Recent events surrounding air operations at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, California, exemplify how this type of growth and public interest can affect decisions regarding the use of DoD facilities. When the air station was built decades ago, it was placed well north of the city, so it would not interfere with the citizens of San Diego. In fact, the Navy and the air station were providing a boost to the city's economy well worth any inconvenience that the base might have presented. Today, Miramar has long since been swallowed up by a growing Southern California population and economy.

After the Marine Corps took over the station from the Navy as part of the Base Realignment and Closure process, a controversy broke out over the basing of helicopters at the air station. Miramar had always been a fixed-wing base, and there were concerns about possible increased noise levels and safety concerns with helicopter operations. The protests were not limited to a group of concerned citizens, however. During the hearing process, a leading Southern California developer initiated a negative advertising campaign, voicing opposition to the helicopter operations, which the developer saw as detrimental to future land and housing values. The controversy eventually led to the solicitation of input from members of Congress and President Bill Clinton, making it a political issue in an election year.

Opposition to military operations is nothing new, but the Miramar case illustrates how the playing field has changed in both intensity and the types of players involved. Problems that once were solved by the base commanding officer, working in concert with community leaders and local citizens, have become far more contentious and complex. Input from the highest levels of government, businesses, environmental groups, and a host of other interests are making the negotiation of these issues more complicated than ever.

Decreasing Support

People with different priorities for the use of the country's natural resources are gaining clout, while in some respects the military is losing influence. Fewer members of Congress have served in the military than at any time in our history—a trend that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future, and one that holds serious consequences for a military that fails to articulate its needs.

In addition, the end of the Cold War has changed public attitudes toward military requirements, and this is sometimes reflected in the political platforms of elected officials. Perceiving a reduced threat, the public is not as likely to support military issues as it has been in the past. In a written statement submitted during hearings on military land reform, Representative Bruce Vento notes, "After nearly two generations, the era of the cold war has come to an end.... Of course many international tensions and problems still remain.... But, the nation is actively reviewing the array of national policies and priorities America adopted in response to the tension and danger of the last 40 years." He goes on to explain why he believes the DoD process for the withdrawal of federal lands and airspace must be changed.

Congressman Vento's opinion is not unique. As bases close, a variety of organizations are bidding for control of these resources. Unfortunately for the military, the public perceives a reduced need for the airspace and training ranges that accompanied operational units at the closed installations. In testimony before Congress, Grace Bukowski, director of the Military Land and Airspace Program for the Reno office of the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability, states, "The end of the Cold War indicates that less, not more, land and airspace is required for the defense of our nation." As pressure builds from constituents, other congressional representatives have begun to question DoD policies and practices. In a letter written to "Strategic Air Command Officials" (and leaked to the press) requesting an environmental impact study on a proposed low-level training route in Utah, Representative Wayne Owens writes, "Once again it appears the military has acted in total disregard of the National Environmental Policy Act and the people of the state of Utah."

Driving this heightened interest from Congress are letters from disgruntled citizens and opposition from special interest groups. When the Navy Fighter Weapons School relocated to NAS Fallon, Nevada, for example, a unique alliance—environmentalists, ranchers, sportsmen, and miners—formed to protest the expansion of ranges and airspace. The environmentalists sought to protect the desert ecology. Sportsmen objected to the withdrawal of more wilderness and to the noise on the land that currently is open. Ranchers and miners objected because they could no longer get access to withdrawn lands for their purposes. These individual groups, generally at opposite ends of the political spectrum but acting in concert on this issue, are being heard in the halls of Congress—and their voice resonates on both sides of the aisle.

Another challenge to the military's use of natural resources is coming from the Native American Congress, which represents more than 200 Native American Indian nations. It is seeking sovereignty rights to the airspace overlying tribal lands. Though it is unlikely that over flight of Native American lands will be cut off, a strong legal argument could be made that Native Americans are entitled to a say in how airspace overlying their lands will be used. Indian Nations already have sovereignty rights over their land and water resources.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing DoD, however, is from within the government itself. The Bureau of Land Management, as part of the Department of Interior, is responsible for the management of federal lands. Together, they oversee the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Mines, and other federal agencies. The two departments must balance a wide range of interests in the use of federal lands in which DoD is simply another agency. In this post-Cold War era, it is easy to envision another government agency, enjoying popular support, overriding DoD interests.

Increasing Need

Modern weapon systems, particularly aircraft and stand-off missile systems, require more space to operate than their predecessors, not less as many in the public would believe. "We are upgrading our aircraft with longer range weapons and radar that can find targets at greater distances. At the same time, we are recognizing the need to train our forces exactly the way they will be employed in battle," says Air Force Major General Edwin Tenoso. The F-22, for example, is designed to operate at supersonic speeds to patrol greater areas and travel farther than current aircraft in a single mission. If we are going to train like we fight, the demand for airspace may increase.

Reducing available DoD training space also would limit our flexibility to adjust training routes away from areas that would be disrupted by our activities during specific seasons. If a low-level training route is on a migratory bird flyway, having enough designated airspace allows us to move flights during periods of migration. Having the option to adjust routes minimizes the impact on the environment without reducing military training capacity.

The testing of new weapon systems and the ability to adjust training space are only part of the story. What many citizens do not realize is that although bases are closing, the number of aircraft using U.S. facilities has not dropped proportionately. For example, all the services have cut aircraft squadrons, but many of those reductions are a result of overseas closures. The aircraft that occupied those now-closed bases in many cases were simply consolidated at another facility. As General Tenoso notes, "The aircraft at that [closed] base still have a role in national defense and so they keep on flying, at another base or at several other bases. This is particularly true as we bring home units from bases overseas. Those crews still need to train, and that training still needs airspace."

Future Access

The ranges in the West now in use by DoD were withdrawn from federal lands by the Military Land Withdrawal Act of 1986. The right to continued use must be renewed in 2001. Should DoD lose access during the review process, the likelihood of regaining it would be extremely slim, as other interests "stake their claims." Unlike the previous renewal, the 2001 renewal will require an environmental impact statement in accordance with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guidelines. How NEPA is used by DoD will be critical to solving range issues.

NEPA legislation was developed 25 years ago in an effort to bring the public into the federal agency decision-making process. If used appropriately, it involves all those who may be concerned with an environmental issue in the planning process, before a final decision is made. There are benefits in using NEPA in its intended manner:

  • Citizens are heard at the beginning of the process, thus providing new insight into the problem. The Air Force has found, for example, that through working with the public they have identified better locations than those originally selected for training requirements.
  • By inviting public opinion at the onset, opposition is minimized because the public has some sense of control over the issue.
  • If decisions are made without public input, the agency must come up with litigation-proof documents, which can increase costs and time for implementation dramatically.
  • NEPA is a federal law that requires DoD compliance.

DoD has been in the natural resource business since 1872—when Congress charged the War Department with protecting Yellowstone after it was designated the country's first national park—and it can be proud of its record of stewardship, especially in recent years. In a Rand Corporation study the military was found to be far less destructive to the environment than timber harvesting or cattle grazing, and the armed forces may be better than any other federal land owner when it comes to protecting natural resources. DoD has been instrumental in preserving vast areas of wilderness that would have long since been destroyed without intervention. The Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton, for example, contains the only remaining natural coastal environment in Southern California. It "is the last major redoubt against the development that threatens to make Southern California one big tract of suburban homes from the Mexican Border to Santa Barbara." Camp Pendleton also is the breeding ground for several unique animal species.

In spite of DoD efforts, the public does not always perceive the department to be operating in the public's best interest. Excerpts from congressional testimony and newspaper articles illustrate the void that has begun to grow between the military and its citizens over these issues:

They [DoD] have run into a hornet's nest and it's a big one.... Put simply, DoD's policy of decide, announce, and defend is not flying with the American public in the 1990s.

-Grace Bukowski, before the Military Installations and Facilities Subcommittee

The history of these projects is the Air Force tells very few people about it, puts together an environmental assessment, gives it a finding, "no significant environmental impact,” hustles the document over to the FAA which rubber stamps it, and the first time people are aware of the new low-level route is when they get buzzed.... Utah is not a playground for SAC.

-Steve Ericson in The Salt Lake Tribune

Some such control seems imperative, with the military taking more and more airspace in Nevada and neighboring states.... Such combinations would reduce military airspace in the West, and open up more flight paths for civilian pilots who are feeling more and more hemmed in.

-Opinion, Reno Gazette Journal

Those of us in uniform must be aware that our actions will be highly scrutinized when it comes to natural resource management. A heightened interest and awareness by the senior leaders in all the services is past due.

Under current policy, each service, often with assistance from other government agencies, oversees the management of its own ranges and, in the case of airspace requirements, works directly with the Federal Aviation Administration. Although there is cross-service utilization of training ranges and a certain degree of interagency cooperation, there has never been joint training range oversight. The closest DoD has come is with the range council on the Joint Staff. A new direction is necessary.

A model that holds tremendous potential is the Air Force's Air Combat Command office on ranges and airspace. Formed in 1995, the office is staffed by approximately 30 people dedicated to range and airspace issues for the Air Force. A key part of making this staff successful is the background and qualifications of individuals holding key positions—a mix of range operations experts, environmental lawyers, public affairs officers, and war fighters. There is just one flaw—it is Air Force only.

A quick and relatively easy way to build a new Joint Office on Ranges and Airspace would be to add other service counterparts to the Air Force staff already in existence. Political and economic interests that are questioning DoD's use of federal lands would find a joint push to keep or expand a range or airspace more influential than an individual service effort. The services working together to meet national defense needs would demonstrate that a genuine effort is being made to conserve resources, thus helping to build essential trust with the public.

Identifying the training range and airspace requirements for our national military strategy is essential and would be the first task for any new joint staff. A joint needs assessment could help to reduce any duplication of range capabilities while ensuring that each service's training and testing requirements are met.

Another capability that such a staff could offer is public-forum teams to do outreach programs to the media and American public. Through consistent and active engagement, we could begin to shape public opinion and gain their trust while maintaining national security interests.

This only scratches the surface of a subject ripe for innovation. Loss of access to ranges has serious implications for our ability to train effectively and efficiently and thus for our national security. Senior leaders in all the services need to take a hard look at this growing problem. For years it has been a back-burner issue; it is time to make it a priority—before we lose our home on the range.

Commander Okerstrom , an SH-60B pilot and 1997 graduate of the Naval War College, currently is assigned to the U.S. Transportation Command.


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