updated 10/6/2004 3:51:27 PM ET 2004-10-06T19:51:27

The Army’s largest major command is cautioning the Pentagon that its spending cuts could make it unable to comply with some environmental laws, putting the military at risk of having training sites shut down by activists’ lawsuits.

The Army Forces Command “is concerned that funding for the sustained management of the training lands ... dwindles dramatically” for the next several years, Maj. Gen. Larry D. Gottardi, a deputy chief of staff for the Forces Command, based at Fort McPherson, Ga., wrote in a Sept. 24 letter.

A spokesman for Gottardi, Barry Morris, said it’s up to the military training ranges and bases to manage their natural resources.

“How worried are we? I would say we’re always concerned that something will impact on our training. That’s why we closely monitor environmental laws and impacts,” Morris said Tuesday.

In the letter, Gottardi tells his Pentagon bosses that “regrettably” most Army projects to sustain the ecological health of its training ranges “were considered optional” and, therefore, will not be funded.

Forces Command is responsible for ensuring that Army combat forces are trained, supplied and mobilized in ways to satisfy commanders’ personnel requirements at home and abroad.

Gottardi did not specify how much of the Army’s environmental budget was being cut. Pentagon officials have estimated they spend $4 billion a year on environmental programs.

The general said that although Forces Command no longer can view the individual budget items, it has learned that even money for planning would be cut by a third, from more than $60 million to $40 million.

Lawsuits expected
“The policy change also places the training mission in potential jeopardy by providing a sound legal basis for private parties or conservation activists to obtain court-ordered injunctions and effectively shut down all training operations,” Gottardi wrote.

That management is watched closely by environmentalists.

“These are some of the most important wildlife habitats in the world,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a whistle-blower group that obtained Gottardi’s letter. “In many cases, these lands have never been used commercially or recreationally.”

In the last two years, Congress has approved several exemptions from environmental laws requested by the Pentagon. They include lowering the threshold for what is considered harassment of a marine mammal and fewer requirements for setting aside areas to help recovery of species of plants and animals in danger of vanishing.

It remains unclear just what Congress requires the Pentagon to do to avoid having to set aside as much habitat for species, Gottardi wrote.

In May, the head of the Army’s Installation Management Agency ordered garrison commanders worldwide to take more risks with environmental programs, cancel environmental contracts and delay all but the most essential enforcement actions until the next fiscal year in October.

Maj. Gen. Anders Aadland, who retired in August after serving as the agency’s first director since its creation in 2002, had said the reductions in contracts and environmental programs were needed to help pay for the war effort. Within hours of an AP report on the order, however, Army officials reversed it.

They said all the environmental programs, summer hires and force protection would continue, but other hiring would be frozen. Spending on travel and conferences would be cut to help cover expenses for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army said.

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