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The Planet

EATURE: Club Activists Dismantle Army Land-Swap Deal

By Louie Miller, Sierra Club State lobbyist, Mississippi

The U.S. Forest Service recently ruled that more than 100,000 acres of MississippiØs DeSoto National Forest, a haven of wildness in an increasingly tamed state, would remain safe from the threat of battalion-sized military tank maneuvers. The decision sent a wave of jubilance through the ranks of grassroots activists who have worked for five years to keep tank battalions out of the DeSoto.

It all began in the summer of 1989, when I received an anonymous phone call about a secret deal being made between the Mississippi Army National Guard and the Forest Service. The arrangement was a "land swap": In exchange for 16,000 acres of mesas and canyons in southeastern Colorado, the Army would turn 32,000 acres of Mississippi's Leaf River wildlife management area in the DeSoto National Forest into an expansion of their Camp Shelby training facility.

It was a raw deal not only for the Forest Service --the Mississippi land was three times as valuable as the Colorado land --but also for the people who loved the pine forests, beaches and coastal plains of the Leaf, as we call it, and for the endangered species that inhabit the area.

A Full-Blown Scandal

As Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club's Mississippi Chapter, I started probing into the facts behind the deal and soon made a startling discovery. Gen. Arthur J. Farmer, then-commander of the Mississippi National Guard, had wearied of dealing with the environmental regulations imposed by the Forest Service. What he wanted was not only the 32,000 acres in question but the entire Mississippi DeSoto National Forest -- a total of 116,000 acres.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, Mississippi Chapter activists obtained letters Farmer had written to other commanders, the secretary of the Army and Mississippi congressmen. His request was blunt: I solicit your support in an immediate exchange of the 32,000 acres needed for tank maneuver[s] and to obtain the entire 116,000 acres within the next few years.

The response from Sen. Strom Thurmond and others was just what Farmer had hoped for. "Thank you for your letter concerning the Army obtaining full control of 116,000 acres from the U.S. Forest Service at Camp Shelby," Thurmond wrote in the spring of 1989. "Be assured it will be a pleasure to endorse your support to the Army and to express my interest." South Carolina's Gen. Easton Marchant scrawled a note to Farmer on a copy of Thurmond's letter: "Hope this helps, ole buddy."

We had unearthed our first bombshell. Not only had National Guard leadership concocted this crazy scheme to "swap" land, but they had lied to the Forest Service about their true intentions. The obvious next step was to go public with our discovery.

It was tough blowing the whistle on the military in Mississippi: Our state has the highest percentage of National Guard members in the country. But retired Lt. Col. Pete Denton, who formed the group Citizens Against the Land Swap in 1989, put his neck on the line by telling all who would listen that to oppose the Guard was not only OK but, by God, it was a patriotic duty to protect the land that so many Mississippians had gone to war and fought for.

An alert Mississippi press picked up the story in July of 1989 and became our steadfast ally, continually exposing and ridiculing the Guard through editorials and cartoons. We wasted no time in putting together a well-documented and orchestrated offensive, the centerpiece of which was a series of three public meetings in Jackson, Hattiesburgh and Biloxi that winter that probably did more to break the story than anything else.

After the meetings, momentum in the struggle shifted dramatically in our direction. Red-blooded patriots though they are, the people of my state won't tolerate being lied to.

Good Old Boys vs. the Grassroots

Despite the scandal, our congressional delegates, Rep. Sonny Montgomery and Sen. Trent Lott, kept working to enact the land swap behind closed doors in Washington, D.C. Mississippi activists weren't about to give up, though. We did some sophisticated networking of our own: We turned to the Club's grassroots. With the help of far-flung activists, we left no stone unturned as we searched for a sympathetic ear in Congress.

What seemed at the time to be a maze of dead ends ultimately resulted in the support of two of the most important players in the demise of the swap: then-Sen. Tim Wirth of Colorado and Rep. Bruce Vento of Minnesota.

I knew that longtime Sierra Club activist Ross Vincent once lived in Louisiana and was well-acquainted with the area we were fighting to save. He agreed to work to avert the land swap from his new home state of Colorado, where he was vice-chair of the Club's Rocky Mountain Chapter.

Ross, working closely with Wirth staffer Chris Wiseman, persuaded Wirth to introduce legislation to transfer the Colorado lands to the Forest Service --and out of military control. With the help of Vento in the House, the legislation was passed in 1990 and the Colorado lands became the Picket Wire National Recreation Area.

Without the Colorado lands to leverage with, the Guard was forced to go public with its plan for a Leaf River tank-maneuvering facility. In over 2,000 written comments, the people of Mississippi roundly rejected the Guard's 1991 environmental impact statement, which proposed battalion-sized tank maneuvers.

The Guard and the Forest Service went back to the drawing board and drafted an EIS that would keep the Leaf River lands safe from tanks --a proposal that we could all live with.

At the same time Vento began investigating the issue of military land grabs. He found that takeovers of public lands were rampant, not just in national forests but in Bureau of Land Management and private lands all over the country. What's more, these actions were being initiated on the camp commander level --that is, without coordination or direction from the Pentagon. The upshot, Vento's committee found, was that the Base Closures and Realignment Act of 1989 had prompted a "free-for-all" with camp commanders scrambling for land in hopes of averting attempts to close military installations. As long as they could conduct their land grabs in secret, they got away with it.

It won't be so easy from now on.The successful collaboration of the ClubØs Mississippi and Colorado chapters proves that the most powerful federal forces can be challenged --and defeated -- by the "little people" if enough of us band together to fight. This victory is the result of years of hard work at the grassroots level --and that's the Sierra Club's greatest strength.

SOURCE: Louie Miller, Sierra Club state lobbyist, Mississippi. Published originally in The Planet, November 1994
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