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As you may already know, our campaign to protect marine mammals against deadly sonar and other man-made threats suffered a terrible setback last week in the United States Congress.
Under the cynical pretext of protecting national security, the Bush administration strong-armed the Senate Armed Services Committee into approving the most far-reaching rollback of marine mammal protection in the last 30 years. It exempts the U.S. military from obeying core provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Because these unprecedented exemptions are part of a "must-pass" defense bill, they were quickly approved by both the House and Senate, and President Bush is sure to sign the bill into law.
Before I tell you what this setback will mean for marine mammals, I want you to know one thing: we fought our hearts out to defeat these disastrous provisions. Our legislative staff worked day and night to get Congress the facts and win over critical swing votes. Two weeks ago, thousands of NRDC activists in the key states of Virginia, Michigan, Arizona and Maine joined the fray by flooding their senators' offices with pro-marine mammal phone calls.
Thanks to their selfless efforts, we came awfully close to pulling off a last- minute victory. In the end, however, we just could not overcome a White House that was shamelessly -- and erroneously -- claiming military necessity in the midst of wartime.
What do these new exemptions mean in the real world? It will now be far easier for the U.S. military to harass and kill whales, dolphins and other marine mammals with high-intensity sonar and underwater explosives. The armed forces will no longer be limited to harming or killing a "small number" of animals.
In another ominous change, the new law allows the military to entirely exempt itself from all environmental review under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In the past, NRDC has used that process to block destructive activities like the detonation of tons of explosives in sensitive marine areas.
Finally, the military will now be allowed to destroy the habitat of endangered birds and mammals that live on 25 million acres of land under the Pentagon's jurisdiction.
The Bush administration claims that these drastic steps are necessary because environmental laws are compromising combat readiness for the war on terror. Baloney! Even the EPA's own administrator testified last spring that she couldn't name a single training mission anywhere in the country that had been delayed or canceled because of environmental restrictions.
Make no mistake, this White House has cynically exploited the war in Iraq as a convenient opportunity to try to give the Pentagon what it has always sought: a free pass to trample our environment and carte blanche to harass marine mammals in the course of testing its weapons and sonar.
It is a telling measure of this administration's hatred of the environment that the bill was even more destructive to marine mammals than what the Pentagon itself had asked for!
The only piece of good news I can share is this: the new exemptions are unlikely to affect the courtroom victory we won in August when a federal judge barred the U.S. Navy from deploying its deadly LFA sonar system across 75 percent of the world's oceans. That's because the Bush administration violated so many different laws in approving that particular system that even an exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act won't get the Navy off the hook.
I am not going to soft-pedal last week's defeat. It is a tragic day indeed when the White House oversees the evisceration of landmark laws -- passed by a bipartisan majority in Congress -- that have helped save so many of our planet's embattled populations of whales and dolphins.
But I would urge you to outrage and action, not despair. Let's put this setback in perspective. Getting the military to stop injuring and killing marine mammals is a monumental task, one that could take decades. We have already made great strides in court, and the tides of change and public opinion are on our side. More than 80 percent of Americans don't think the Pentagon should be above environmental laws. If we harness that people power, we will one day prevail.
In the months ahead, NRDC will be fighting in Congress to overturn these disastrous new exemptions. We will partner with European groups to mount a worldwide campaign of political pressure against dangerous, high-powered sonar systems. We will pursue every opportunity to block lethal sonar systems in the courts. And if the Bush administration does attempt to overturn our victory against LFA sonar, we will go back to court and fight tooth and nail to defend it.
Defending marine mammals on so many different fronts will require an extraordinary amount of funding. If you would like to help further this NRDC campaign against deadly sonar, please consider making an online contribution. It will be put to work immediately and be deeply appreciated. Just go to https://www.savebiogems.org/donate/lfa1103.asp
In the meantime, for the sake of whales and other marine mammals around the globe, we're counting on you to stay the course with us. We need your idealism, your energy and your activism. Thank you for all you've done.
John H. Adams
Natural Resources Defense Council