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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2006
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Sierra Magazine
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A Few Good Species
The Marine Corps' Michael Lehnert protects natural security
by Marilyn Berlin Snell
November/December 2006

(page 2 of 2)

The Stephens' kangaroo rat, one of two endangered mammals on the base, thrives in undisturbed coastal sage scrub.

Lehnert has no numbers for the arroyo toad yet but can document some other successes: In 1983, there were 62 male least Bell's vireos found on the base; by 2000, the endangered bird's numbers had jumped to 807. There were 233 pairs of the endangered California least tern observed in 1983, but by 2005, 1,348 were counted.

"The move to exempt places like Camp Pendleton from critical-habitat designations was politics, pure and simple, on the part of the Bush administration and its allies in Congress," Bart Semcer, the Sierra Club's wildlife-policy expert, tells me later. Since 2001, he has worked to build stronger conservation ties between the Club and government affiliates, including the Marine Corps, touring installations and meeting officers like Lehnert. Though Semcer believes the exemptions "succeeded in taking American conservation policy one more step backward," he has observed Lehnert's approach to natural-resource protection up close and believes in his commitment. "The general has a can-do attitude about stewardship," says Semcer. "We just need more people with his drive, motivation, and willingness to pursue innovative approaches to conservation."

While environmental laws are being weakened from the very top of the military hierarchy, a stewardship ethic born of these laws (as well as a growing understanding of environmental threats generally) has taken root in the day-to-day operations at Camp Pendleton. Lupe Armas, the base's environmental security manager, is a civilian who oversees its natural-resource staff. In his 14 years at the base, he has seen many commanders come and go. (Generals usually have two-year rotations.) "We have a lot of pristine habitat that's being well managed here; it's not just being left alone." He adds that Lehnert has been an enthusiastic supporter of these efforts.

Lehnert, who is standing next to Armas on the Camp Pendleton hillside, jumps in. "And if I wasn't on board with Lupe, he'd just wait me out. I'm serious. Lupe would have a rough two years, and then I'd leave, and he'd get back to work. There's simply too much momentum in the Marine Corps."

AS I DRIVE WITH LEHNERT, Armas, and others to visit various sites across the base, passing hand-painted signs paying tribute to Marines who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, I begin to appreciate the stark reality of what "military preparedness" actually means. According to Lehnert, 460 Marines from bases in Southern California--the vast majority from Camp Pendleton--have been killed in combat. The week before my visit, six Marines drowned when their vehicle overturned into an Iraqi river. "I don't know whether that driver was well trained and just had an accident or whether he lacked training," says Lehnert. "But I have a responsibility to ensure that those we send over to Iraq have the best training possible."

I can't help but think that if the Fox News Channel's professional bully, Bill O'Reilly, were with us, he would have a rage-induced aneurism over the training decisions that have been made at one of our stops. We are at the Crucible, a physical location but also a test every Marine must go through at the end of training. Essentially, the Crucible is 60 hours of reduced sleep, lots of marching, and a series of tasks that test Marines' ability to work as a team, solve problems, and survive combat.

Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Soderberg, who has a master's in science and environmental management from the University of Houston, steps into one of the 21 wooden stalls at the Crucible to explain how combat simulation works: "Maybe there's a team in here, with someone on a stretcher. The red bars in the middle are contaminated, and you have to figure out how to get your team members to the other side of the stall without touching the bars. Everyone by this point is sleep deprived, worn-out, and frustrated." Each stall tests different skills.

Lehnert adds, "We're trying to approximate combat conditions as closely as possible. We want to make sure that the first time they experience these challenges is not when somebody is trying to kill them." Along with the physical challenges of combat, the Crucible presents another kind as well: It sits on one of the last remaining habitats of the Pacific pocket mouse. Lehnert and Armas's staff must ensure that Crucible training does not push the species closer to extinction.

Fences were built around the perimeter of the course to keep sleepy, sometimes idle recruits from wandering farther into the mouse's domain. When the base wanted to spread out by adding stalls, Camp Pendleton's environmental department had concerns. "It would have meant further incursions into pocket mouse habitat, so the commanders compromised with a less-than-optimal design that didn't take up so much room," says Armas.

"If you look at how the Marines did, particularly during Operation Iraqi Freedom in the early part when I was there, we got to Baghdad in a hurry," Lehnert says. "I guess we did pretty well. So is this type of training effective? Yes, I think it is."

"HABITAT IS OUR MOST IMPORTANT environmental issue," Lehnert tells me as we bounce over sandy roads, headed to Camp Pendleton's coast. "If we can find a way to allow our Marines to train without having a significant impact on the habitat, if we can restore habitat, then everybody wins." For example, he says, "if I can provide the science that says least terns nest from this time to this time in this place, and at other times they aren't on the property, then we can formulate training schedules that don't affect them." Camp Pendleton is the Marine Corps' premier training base for assault vehicles that can move from water to land. Given that fact, a data-rich and delicate dance is required to protect the least tern--which nests in shoreline dunes on the base--without altogether ceding the terrain to the birds. Lehnert calls it a "win-win proposition": The Marines get to train, and the "birds and beasties," as he calls Camp Pendleton's feathered and furred residents, get their habitat.

Birds like the least Bell's vireo and southwestern willow flycatcher enjoy Marine Corps aid as well. Several years ago, biologists deduced that the plummeting numbers of birds in riparian areas were due to the brown-headed cowbird, which had evolved on the central plains following bison herds and eating insects stirred up by them. The female cowbird, with little time for motherhood, laid its eggs in another species' nest and then moved on. The baby cowbird typically hatched earlier than the other birds and so was bigger and better able to grab food from the unwitting host female. As a result, the cowbird has thrived and continues this type of destructive adaptation today. Three years ago, Armas and his team installed cowbird traps: Lured by food, the birds drop in through a slit on the top of the ingeniously designed cages. Once inside, they can't exit because their wings are spread in flight and they no longer fit through the opening. Since those first traps were built, numbers for some of the threatened and endangered birds have jumped. Innocent birds caught in the traps are released. The cowbirds, in Armas's diplomatic phraseology, "are terminated."

SINCE CAMP PENDLETON is on war footing, the tension between military preparedness and natural-resource protection is all the more acute. I keep thinking about that tension as well as those disconcertingly efficient cowbird cages at the end of the day, as I sit with Lehnert in his office. In 2002, Lehnert, an engineer by training, went to Guantánamo Bay to build the detention facilities for terror suspects. The general was there three months, constructing the spare, open-air cells many have described as human cages. Long after this tour, he was named in several lawsuits, along with General Tommy Franks, Rumsfeld, and many others, charged with violations of due process and human rights. I tell Lehnert I read the complaints. "And you're wondering how this guy can care about the birds and beasties and not about human rights," he says. It isn't a question, but I answer, "Yes."

There's a pause. It's been a day full of goodwill, but the topic I've just brought up feels radioactive. Detainee treatment has nothing to do with environmental issues, but everything to do with ethics, character, and how tough decisions get made when there are competing agendas.

"As you know," Lehnert begins, "the administration's position has been that we would be 'guided' by but not have to follow the Geneva conventions. When I received that direction, I was at Guantanamo, and the first thing I did was read those conventions." Before he continues, the general reminds me that he did not supervise the interrogation of prisoners. Choosing his words carefully--"In my position, I cannot criticize policies"--he adds, "Yes, this is a markedly different war. Yes, there are terrorists and all the problems that come with that. But I believe in treating people decently. I think if we had started with the Geneva conventions, it would have been a better place to begin. We could have made them work."

They're just words, but they come from a man with a record of making things work. Lehnert has effectively navigated the terrain between patriotic duty and environmental protection--between "love of country" and "America the beautiful." Like the protections he and his staff at Camp Pendleton have afforded endangered species, military leadership on human rights could help restore another American treasure as well.

Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra's senior writer.


This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.

photo by Bill Berry, used with permission

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