DoD Biodiversity Conservation Handbook
Chapters:Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11IntroductionCase StudiesAcknowledgements
Chapter 4: Too Close for Comfort: Encroachment on Military Lands

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 difficult.

Population Growth

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.

Environmental Regulation

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 Public Lands
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 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 necessary.

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 communities.

Proceed to Next Section: Buffers and Adjacent Land

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John Elwood is a Colonel, USAF National Guard Bureau, Andrews AFB, Maryland.

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