Senator jumps the gun for the military

  Lawmakers and environmentalists are up in arms over the future of military training grounds in the West. The excitement began this May when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., unveiled a proposal to allow the military use of 3 million acres of public land in Arizona and New Mexico.


The public land includes the McGregor Range and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The military has used it, however, since 1986, when the Military Training Land Withdrawal Act turned over 7 million acres to the Army and Air Force. That law expires in two years, and officials from the departments of Interior and Defense have been working with the public to decide if the military should stay beyond 2001.


But shortly before the departments finished an environmental impact statement on the training grounds, McCain attached a rider to a defense authorization bill. His proposal would give the military access to more of the Cabeza Prieta refuge and turn over 3 million acres to the military indefinitely.


Critics said McCain jumped the gun. "It (McCain's rider) circumvented the public comment period," said Kristen Ludecke, a spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. "We didn't think it was fair for Congress to haul off and decide on their own without giving the local community a voice in the process."


Bingaman convinced McCain to withdraw his proposal, though McCain spokesman Larry Slate says 80 percent of public comment on the EIS supported setting aside the land for the military. The decision is now in the hands of the Clinton administration. It's expected to review the finished environmental impact statement and present a proposal to Congress by July 1.


In the meantime, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., is trying to work language into the final bill that would remove the McGregor Range from Interior Department jurisdiction and give it to the Defense Department. Responds Grace Portorti, who works for the Rural Alliance for Military Accountability, "Putting the Defense Department in charge of land management is like asking a plumber to fly a 747."


* Keri Watson and Greg Hanscom