The Value of Military Lands
Trends in population, environmental regulation, and basic American attitudes toward
land use and national security have changed markedly over time. Most (but
not all) of these trends have made military efforts to control encroachment more
The population of the United States has grown considerably in the last fifty years.
While this growth has not been as significant as in other parts of the world, it has doubled from 151 million in 1950 to an estimated 302 million today, thus significantly
increasing competition for land, water, and airspace.
Population growth by itself does not necessarily lead to increased land use pressures
for the military. However, simultaneous with population growth, there has
been a trend toward the increasing dispersion of the population. The distinction
between rural and urban population has diminished considerably since World
War II. Lower mobility and communication costs relative to family income allowed
populations to migrate out from city cores. According to the U.S. Census,
total housing units have increased 75 percent faster than population, creating the
dispersion phenomenon known as suburban sprawl.
Another overlay on these population trends is the attractiveness of military installations.
Population growth around these facilities has grown at a much faster
rate than the U.S. population at large. Growth exceeds the national average at 80
percent of the military's installations. Development near military installations is
also desirable because of the privacy and the environmental attractions that the
installation affords its neighbors. A similar trend is emerging with development
adjacent to national parks, wildlife refuges, and wildlife management areas.
The trend toward land use controls is large and growing, and there is no reason
to assume that it will reverse itself. From the country's beginnings until around
1964, the primary focus of land use regulation was on resource extraction. The
granting of public lands to homesteaders and low-cost sale of public land to others
was viewed as a way to encourage development and harness the wealth of the
country. Other laws passed by Congress facilitated the harvesting of what were
considered "endless resources" often encapsulating in law the sale of mineral,
timber, water, or other rights at below-market prices. The first federal land preservation
initiative came in 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone National Park.
Legislation creating National Forests came along in 1891. The land available for
military expansion began to diminish as the American people began to see value
other than resources in these public lands.
The passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 signaled a new era in environmental
regulation. Poor land use practices, industrial malfeasance, and a growing environmental awareness led to the passage of a series of laws that protected air, land,
and water, which the population was increasingly seeing as its "commons." The
Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental
Policy Act (NEPA), each in its own way placed limits on the military and
the public on how land under their control could be used. (For a detailed examination
of these legislative efforts, see chapter 3, Legal and Policy Background).
The Growing Popularity of
There is increasing public pressure
to support the multiple use of public
lands rather than a dominant
use policy. (See chapter 5, Multiple
Uses, for further discussion.) This
inhibits the military's efforts to restrict
federal land use to military
activities. National parks visitation
has grown at a faster rate than that
of the population generally. Total
park visits in 1950 were 33 million.
In 2000, this rose to 286 million.
Population during that same period
only doubled. The general public
has become aware of the negative
effects of suburban sprawl and has
demanded that legislatures and local
elected bodies address the
problem. In 2003, citizens placed
99 open space initiatives in 23
states on referendum ballots. Voters
passed 77 percent of these
measures despite extraordinary
pressures to reduce spending.
A public perception that federal agencies were slow to implement the requirements
of these laws led to the passage of the Federal Facilities Compliance Act
(FFCA) in 1992. It made clear that the people expected their government to obey
the same laws they were required to comply with. (See http://www.fws.gov/laws/
laws_digest/fedfaci.html). The 1996 reauthorization of the Safe Drinking Water
Act extended the same federal government compliance mandate to drinking water
protection that the FFCA had done for solid waste requirements.
A significant portion of military lands is not actually owned by DoD, but has
been withdrawn from public use for the military. Over 60 percent of DoD property
falls into this category (Rubenson, op. cit). Withdrawn land has the potential
to be returned to public use in the future. Each withdrawal act specifies the
date of return or land use conditions. Until 1958, the withdrawal process was
managed by the Interior Department. Congressman Clair Engle of California described
the process at that time:
The Army, the Navy, and the Air Force would simply take out a slip of paper in the nature of
the application to the Interior Department asking for an area perhaps one hundred miles long
and fifty miles wide. . . , and send it over to the Secretary of the Interior saying it was absolutely
Public pressure and congressional discontent with the lack of clarity in DoD's
land requests resulted in the passage of the Engle Act of 1958. It required congressional
approval for all withdrawals over 5,000 acres. Each withdrawal since
that date has come with more conditions.
The once remote southern boundary of the
U. S. Air Force Academy is now completely
lined with luxury homes, resulting in trespass
issues, including erosion from pedestrian
and horse traffic on closed trails and
illegal fires. The Academy's eastern boundary,
seen in the distance, is now nearly completely
built out. (Photo: Douglas Ripley)
The Engle Act was only the beginning of closer monitoring of military land
needs and management. An expanding western population created new classes
of recreational users who demanded access to public lands. These groups, well
organized at the state and federal level, scrutinized each military land request in
detail. They have continued to successfully use the courts and Congress to fight
military land use.
Competition for land will only grow more intense in the future. DoD should expect
that justification for withdrawals will generate even greater public scrutiny.
Airspace withdrawals, now managed as a federal interagency matter, also could
generate the same type of Congressional oversight as land withdrawals have to date.
In the last decade, the American people have demonstrated that open space has
great value to them. The siting of public projects has become more difficult due to
growing opposition from those who fear land will be "taken out of circulation."
Even if members of the public value the military's mission, they can be expected
to oppose expansion of military training activities when it directly affects them.
Military installations often are the last open space in the middle of an expanse
of suburban sprawl. They are important components to a region's ecosystem and
critical to the preservation of the area's biodiversity. Generally speaking, the public
does not care or even know how the military manages its lands.
The good news is that the public also values the military mission. Respondents
to U.S. polls consistently rate the military as having a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of public confidence. Such goodwill conceivably could translate
into public acceptance of the ever-increasing military training impositions on local
Proceed to Next Section: Buffers and Adjacent Land