Wildlife and military are improbable allies


November 28, 1992|By TOM HORTON

Early maps and accounts of the Chesapeake indicate tha American Indians had set aside lands for tribal combat -- a sort of war zone -- off limits to normal settlement and commerce.

Ironically, these areas were abundant in wildlife, which was scarce near Indian villages even in the time of Capt. John Smith and other early European explorers.

And the delicious irony has, if anything, enlarged with modern times and weaponry; war zones still are good for wildlife.

Around the bay, jet fighters and nesting great blue herons coexist nicely on Bloodsworth Island, the Navy's bombing range in Tangier Sound. Heavy cannon at Aberdeen Proving Ground ring in the ears of as many as a hundred roosting bald eagles.

At Quantico, Va., on the Potomac River, Marine combat training shares space with the endangered Small Whorled Pogonia. Downstream at the Army's Blossom Point facility, a riverfront rich in unexploded ordnance shelters a wealth of larval rockfish.

It is both the delight and dilemma of the Chesapeake that it is so many things to so many people -- a tasty bay, fabulously rich in seafood; a major highway for oil transport; a means of diluting vast amounts of sewage; a hunting, fishing and sailing paradise.

And it is very much a military bay. There are 66 Department of Defense installations in Maryland, Virginia and the approximately one-third of Pennsylvania that drains into the Chesapeake.

They range from places smaller than a city block to giant tracts such as Quantico (64,000 acres, or 100 square miles), Aberdeen (72,500 acres) and A. P. Hill (88,700 acres), near Virginia's Rappahannock River.

All told, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines own 550 square miles, an area equal in size to the largest counties in Maryland, and including hundreds of miles of shoreline along the bay and its tidal rivers.

Most of that land -- 85 percent to 90 percent or more on some of the big bases -- has remained largely natural. Fort Eustis, in Virginia, contains 75 percent of all the remaining tidal wetlands in the Newport News region.

The phenomenon is worldwide. Camp Pendleton's sprawling acreage is a major reason mountain lions still roam in Southern California. The demilitarized zone between the two Koreas is key to the survival of endangered Asian cranes.

Obviously, we need to be careful in drawing conclusions. The presence of thousands of diving ducks and dozens of eagles around Aberdeen's toxic-contaminated marshes is no endorsement of pollution.

Neither does the nesting colony of herons on Bloodsworth Island mean bombing sorties should get the Audubon Society's endorsement. (The nests there are Government Issue, the original trees having been napalmed by mistake many years ago.)

To me, it shows that we probably underestimate the extent to which normal, everyday human activities affect nature. We must continue, of course, to reduce traditional sources of pollution; but we need to realize that this alone won't regain a healthy environment.

We need to pay more attention to the "do nothing" alternatives in those 500-page Environmental Impact Statements; we must summon the courage to say, "Let's leave the land alone. Let's not develop it."

The inadvertent wildlife refuges are only half the story of the military and the bay. Until recently, there has been a less benign side. Military facilities around the Chesapeake, for example, include five toxic waste Superfund sites. In addition, some residents near Fort Detrick in Frederick are concerned that past practices by the Army have poisoned their well water. In Norfolk, Va., plans by the Navy to use TBT-laced bottom paint on ships threatened to produce toxic contamination. At Aberdeen, proposed incineration of old mustard gas agents has brought an outcry from the downwind public.

In the larger scheme of things, the military was never a major factor in the bay's decline. But the Pentagon had created an open sore, at a time when the federal government was officially committed to making cities, industries and farmers toe the line on pollution. That has begun to change dramatically, especially since April 1990, when the Environmental Protection Agency and the Defense Department agreed to work together for a better Chesapeake Bay.

State environmental officials in Maryland and Virginia say that progress is being made.

In January 1990, 37 of 53 federal facilities around the bay, mostly military, were not in compliance with one or more environmental laws, says the EPA. By last June, the number of installations was down to three. The Defense Department says it spent $116 million on the cleanup in fiscal 1991 alone.

The results can be as prosaic as an upgraded sewage treatment plant, or as creative as putting beaches off limits to tank testing during shorebird nesting season.

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