Save the tortoise!

Fort Irwin Expansion update 07/27/00

by Michael J. Connor

Last Friday, the Army fired a new salvo in its efforts to expand the Fort Irwin National training center into Desert Tortoise Critical Habitat. Secretary Caldera submitted a draft bill entitled "West Mojave Desert Military Lands Withdrawal Act of 2000" to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). This bill would expand Fort Irwin to the full extent outlined in the Army's original April 1999 proposal. It ignores the findings of this spring's Fort Irwin Tortoise panel. It deleted language reportedly agreed to in a prior joint draft bill prepared by Department of Interior and the Army in March 2000 to the effect that all actions pursuant to the withdrawal legislation comply fully with section 7 consultation under the Endangered Species Act. I have been informed that Department of Interior delivered an immediate and strongly worded response to OMB contesting the draft bill.

Tomorrow, Congress recesses for the summer. Yesterday (7/26/00), the Conference Committee was set up to resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions of H.R.4205 the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001. The House version of H.R.4205 includes SEC. 2887. SENSE OF THE CONGRESS REGARDING IMPORTANCE OF EXPANSION OF NATIONAL TRAINING CENTER, FORT IRWIN, CALIFORNIA. Section 2887 is a convenient placeholder for language such as that in the draft bill sent to OMB by the Army. There is some basis for believing that it would seem unlikely that it would be placed into H.R.4205 "as is," because by doing so the Act would be placed at risk of veto. This is in view of the Department of Interior's strong opposition to the draft bill and the language of the draft bill itself. However, in Washington D.C. anything is possible especially in the dog days of summer. It was about this time last year that funding for land acquisition in the proposed Fort Irwin expansion area was slipped into an appropriations bill in conference.

The Army's draft bill ignores both the current status of the tortoise in the West Mojave and the need for any effort to recover the tortoise. Section 8 ENDANGERED SPECIES CONSERVATION (extracted below) from the draft bill mentions 3 points. First, at his discretion (sic), the Secretary of the Army can establish and provide for management of a tortoise preserve within or adjacent to NTC. This small area would be managed for tortoise conservation not recovery. pointedly, uSFWS and BLM would not be involved in its management!

Second, the bill authorizes the Secretary of the Army to acquire up to 153,000 acres of private lands within the Superior-Cronese DWMA, presumably as replacement habitat for the 153,000 acres of public land the Army will take. This is considerably lower than the 3 to 1 ratio of a typical mitigation. Without considering the merits of this as mitigation (see the Fort Irwin Tortoise panel report at http://www.tortoise.org/conservation/ntc/ftirwin5.html) it is an unlikely goal given the number of willing sellers who would have to be found and the lack of appropriation of the $100,000,000 or so that 153,000 acres would cost.

Third, the bill would stick the brunt of mitigation for the expansion on to the stake-holders of the West Mojave plan. The bill specifically mandates that the West Mojave plan identify all the adverse effects of the expansion and that mitigation for these adverse effects be integrated into the plan. Effectively, all desert users in the West Mojave - grazers, miners, OHV users, hunters, multiple users, utilities and developers -- would pay for the Army's desire to expand into the Superior Valley/Paradise Range.

Below is the extract from the draft bill West Mojave Desert Military Lands Withdrawal Act of 2000 that was submitted to OMB by Secretary of the Army, Caldera. Although not publicly available it has been widely leaked in Washington DC.

Sec. 8 ENDANGERED SPECIES CONSERVATION
(a) Tortoise preserve. In order to facilitate the conservation of a genetically viable population of desert tortoises within the West Mojave Desert, the Secretary of the Army, at his discretion, is authorized to establish and provide for management of a tortoise preserve, consisting of 100 square miles more or less, on land within, or adjacent to, the National training center. The Secretary of the Army is authorized to enter into cooperative agreements or make grants to State and local agencies or qualified non-profit private entities to assist the Secretary in establishing and providing for management of such a preserve.
(b) Acquisition of private Lands For Mitigation. The Secretary of the Army is authorized to acquire, or enter into a reimbursable agreement with the Secretary of the Department of the Interior for then purpose of the Secretary of the Department of the Interior acquiring up to 153,000 acres of private lands within the Superior-Cronese Desert Wildlife Management Area if the acquisition of private lands is determined, in a biological opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to constitute full or partial mitigation for any adverse effects on endangered species resulting from the Army's use of the lands withdrawn by this title.
(c) West Mojave Coordinated Management plan. The Secretary of the Interior shall, to the maximum extent practicable, complete the West Mojave Coordinated Management plan by December 31, 2002. The Secretary of the Interior shall not approve the West Mojave Coordinated Management plan (1) identifies all adverse effects that the withdrawal and subsequent intended use of the lands withdrawn pursuant to this title will have on any species protected under the Endangered Species Act within the West Mojave Desert; and (2) integrates mitigation for all adverse effects that are identified.

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