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

"It's possible to find ways to get Marines ready for combat and at the same time be good stewards," says Major General Michael Lehnert. "It's not a zero-sum game."
AT THE SIERRA CLUB'S NATIONAL CONVENTION last year in San Francisco, the bold cofounder of the environmental organization Earth First, Dave Foreman, shared the podium with Michael Lehnert, a U.S. Marine Corps general in full-dress uniform, to discuss what it would take to restore the country's wild places. After Foreman railed against "the greatest extinction of species in 65 million years," challenging listeners to create a world in which people and wilderness could coexist and thrive, Lehnert let the wolf howls of applause die down before he responded. "If you came here looking for a fight, I'm sorry to disappoint," he said. "My job is to apply some of [Foreman's] ideas to what I do." Since 2000--between deployments to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and Iraq--Lehnert has been championing the cause of environmental stewardship within the Marine Corps. At the conclusion of his talk, he invited anyone interested to come and see what's being done to protect and restore Southern California's Camp Pendleton, where he's currently stationed. Last spring, I took him up on it.

Camp Pendleton covers 195 square miles and contains three distinct climatic zones: coastal plain, coastal valley, and mountain. Scrunched between the ever-expanding metro areas of San Diego and Los Angeles, the base remains 85 percent undeveloped--just the kind of pristine, high-value real estate speculators drool over. The rugged terrain serves as both a buffer against rampant sprawl along California's coast and a magnet for wildlife. Eighteen threatened or endangered species reside here, including the California least tern, least Bell's vireo, Pacific pocket mouse, and arroyo toad.

... and he means it: During nesting season, Marine maneuvers through surf and sand are restricted in favor of the California least tern and Western snowy plover.
Lehnert, 55, moved to Camp Pendleton in March 2005 and a few months later was named regional commander of all seven Marine Corps installations west of the Mississippi. The son of an enlisted man, he was born on North Carolina's Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base and has been a Marine since 1973. Today he's a two-star major general in a nation at war, charged with getting men and women ready for battle.

He's also an environmentalist in a rigid, hierarchical world with other priorities--where a built-in tension often exists between preparing Marines for deployment and protecting the land and water on which they train. Yet as Lehnert's rank and responsibilities have increased over the years, so have his latitude and creativity in decision-making. "It's possible," he says, "to find ways to get Marines ready for combat and at the same time be good stewards. It's not a zero-sum game to me."

EVEN IN HIS DARKISH-GREEN AND BLACK pixelated camouflage fatigues, Lehnert doesn't fade into Camp Pendleton's scenery. With squared shoulders, a voice comfortable giving orders, and a gap-toothed smile that looks at times mischievous, he simply isn't a blending-in kind of guy. He's a man of action, but one patient enough for data gathering if it helps him make his case for environmental protection.

Camp Pendleton has an annual natural-resource budget of $35 million and an environmental staff of 84, charged with adhering to federal and state regulations. With Lehnert's support, the base also pursues studies and stewardship beyond what's required by law. "A country worth defending is a country worth preserving," he says simply while describing some of the base's erosion abatement, solar-powered water purification, and vernal-pool-restoration projects. Though I get the feeling the general uses that line often, it's a good one, and I tell him so. "Yeah?" he responds. "And when you write it, your readers will yell, 'Come on! The military protecting the environment? Give me a break!'"

There's good reason to be skeptical. Billions of dollars in environmental cleanup are needed at Department of Defense sites, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Yet, since 2003, the DOD has annually submitted to Congress requests for broadening military exemptions from key environmental laws, on the grounds that they hamper readiness on the nearly 30 million acres of land it controls. Congress already allowed case-by-case military exemptions from Superfund legislation as well as the Clean Air Act and the critical-habitat designation of the Endangered Species Act. But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked for exemptions from those acts as well as the Marine Mammal Protection and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts. (The requests were made in the face of a 2002 GAO report that concluded that not only was the military at a high state of readiness, but also the Defense Department had failed to demonstrate that compliance with these laws significantly impedes training.)

The Republican-controlled Congress granted the DOD's wishes. In the case of the Endangered Species Act, it decreed that if military bases had natural-resource-management plans in place, they could forgo designating any critical habitat for endangered or threatened species.

Lehnert supports the exemptions. He concedes that policies such as critical-habitat designations are "absolutely essential for institutions that don't get it" and should be kept on the books but insists that Camp Pendleton is a success story on both the national and natural security fronts.

As we stand on a hilltop with a few members of his environmental team, Lehnert makes his case: We are looking down at the Santa Margarita--one of California's last free-flowing rivers, which passes to the Pacific Ocean through the southern portion of Camp Pendleton. An airstrip bisects the valley below. Intermittent gunfire can be heard from the adjacent Wilcox Range, while dark military helicopters lumber above us like giant Cretaceous raptors. Mostly, however, the vista resembles a scene from California's pre-sprawl past: unscarred hills and valleys plush with sweet-smelling coastal sage scrub (habitat for the threatened coastal California gnatcatcher), spindly creosote, and live oak. Although nearly 40,000 service members train at the base each year, the lion's share of the activity happens at night, so much of daytime Camp Pendleton looks and feels like wilderness.

Lehnert grabs at the fennel next to him, breaks off a wispy-leafed piece, and sticks it in his mouth. "I hate this plant," he announces before offering me some to taste. "It's exotic, one of the worst offenders, and it's all over this base." Next he points toward the valley. "See all that dead gray stuff down there by the river? That's what's left of arundo in that area." The arundo, or giant reed, is an invasive perennial that chokes the life out of native flora and fauna, including the arroyo toad.

To protect this endangered toad, Marines are clearing arundo along the banks of the Santa Margarita, from the base's property line all nine miles to the sea. At the same time, training vehicles on maneuvers sometimes crash into the river. "We are restoring habitat so that we have sustainable or growing populations of threatened and endangered species," Lehnert says. "We are also using the property for national defense purposes." He emphasizes, repeatedly, that if the Marines can't train, they'll leave Camp Pendleton, "and then environmentalists are going to be dealing with developers instead."

Lehnert argues that the creation of critical-habitat zones is a disincentive to stewardship. "Under critical-habitat designation, it's actually in my interest to keep arroyo toads, for instance, out of anyplace they aren't already in," he says. Essentially, why restore the entirety of the Santa Margarita River basin, he asks, if it only means the toads will migrate and make the whole thing off-limits to training? "The real issue is whether we are being successful in growing larger populations and protecting habitat."

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This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.

photos by Tim Tadder, used with permission

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