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When The Military Is Good For The Environment

Most environmentalists are liberals, and hence we tend to be a bit skeptical of the military. We're unenthusiastic at best about the use of force, we're concerned about the military-industrial complex, and we know that the military has serious problems with such illiberal practices as sexism, homophobia, and religious proselytization in its ranks. So we're not surprised to hear frequent stories about the military harming the environment, too -- usually because military activities are wholly or partially exempt from environmental laws.

But in doing some background reading for my dissertation, I recently discovered a case in which the military is good for the environment. The case relates to the New Jersey Pine Barrens, an ecosystem that occupies most of the southern part of the state. The Pine Barrens are noted for being fire-adapted, and maintaining the health of the ecosystem requires periodic fires. In contemporary New Jersey, that means controlled burning, since there's too much development in the state to ever allow a wildfire to run free the way they can in, say, Alaska. But as with any fire-adapted ecosystem, all fires are not equal, and the type of fire that is optimal for the ecology is not necessarily the same as the type of fire that would best serve some other objective, such as hazard reduction.

Anika McKessey presents a contrast (pdf) between two types of Pine Barrens land: land owned by the military at Warren Grove Gunnery Range, and land owned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. One would think that DEP would have the more eco-friendly fire policies -- it's right there in the name! However, DEP is constrained by another environmental goal -- the Clean Air Act. New Jersey is typically in non-attainment for Clean Air Act standards for, among other things, particulate matter (that is, the state's air has more particulates than the law allows). Being in non-attainment puts restrictions on the pollutant-creating activities that you can engage in -- activities like controlled burning, which produces particulate-filled smoke. DEP's interpretation of the law is that as long as the state is in non-attainment, the only kind of controlled burning that is permissible is for hazard reduction (since hazard reduction burning has a major direct safety benefit and also minimizes wildfires, which would produce even more smoke). Ecologically-focused controlled burning is not allowed. (Note, however, that the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, an environmental group that among other things advocates for increased ecological burning, disputes DEP's interpretation of the law.)

Warren Grove, on the other hand, has a longstanding ecological controlled burning program. It's not entirely clear whether the military has a formal exemption from the laws that DEP says tie its hands, or whether they just have an ethos of taking the most generous interpretation of the laws. The result is that McKessey found that the forests at Warren Grove are actually in better shape than those on neighboring State Forest land.


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