Tortoises take on tanks



In the middle of California's Mojave Desert, a 15-year-long battle over 131,000 acres of desert may be coming to a head. The proposed expansion of the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin could harm two high-profile local residents, the threatened desert tortoise and the endangered Lane Mountain milkvetch.

The expansion area, now managed by the Bureau of Land Management, would be frequently used by combat teams, composed of 5,000 soldiers each, and anywhere from 400 to 500 vehicles - including approximately 160 tanks. Major Rob Ali, public affairs officer at Fort Irwin, explains that the Army needs the land for "the most realistic combat training you can get anywhere." But Daniel Patterson, desert ecologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, believes "the current proposal is the worst possible proposal, biologically."

A report issued April 16 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seems to bolster this opinion, saying that expansion of the training center could mean extinction for the endemic milkvetch and serious trouble for the desert tortoise. Ray Bransfield, the Fish and Wildlife biologist who wrote the report, points out: "The smaller you make your basket, the harder it's going to be to keep any good eggs in it."

Groups including the Sierra Club and the Endangered Species Coalition are trying to persuade Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to oppose the expansion.

A final biological opinion is due from the Fish and Wildlife Service by Dec. 21, 2002. If the agency signs off on the project, Congress will consider transferring the land to the Army.