Don’t Misuse Defense Bill to Weaken Environmental Laws

By Major General Michael R. Lehnert (retired)

Photo credit National Park Service/Rebecca Smith

In 1951, Marine Corps Lieutenant Pete McCloskey returned home from Korea. A year later he left active duty, put his uniform, Silver Star, Navy Cross and two Purple Hearts in the closet along with his memories of that conflict, and pursued public service. He won his bid for Congress as a Republican in California’s 17th District. While in Congress, he joined forces with Michigan Representative John Dingell to co-sponsor and pass the iconic Endangered Species Act in 1973. Pete understood that national imperatives were far more important than reelection. Those with that level of integrity are rare within the halls of Congress today.

A generation later another great American came home from war. Released after six years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, John McCain suffered torture and refused the opportunity to be repatriated ahead of others. His election to the Senate as a Republican parallel that of McCloskey’s in many ways in that he always put national interests first ahead of his own career. That’s the way he has led the Senate Armed Service Committee for years, ensuring that the National Defense Authorization Act was sent to Presidents of both parties as a “clean bill.” John McCain knew that the politicization of national defense was the slippery slope to national ruin.

Both of these men have been described as mavericks. That’s accurate. If being a maverick means putting national interest ahead of person or party, they are not only mavericks, they themselves are an endangered species. They put their lives on the line for this great nation and their experiences as young men formed the basis for their actions in Washington. They knew implicitly that the American people deserved leadership that extended beyond the partisan politics of lesser-elected representatives. They delivered. Both understood that a country worth defending is a country worth preserving.

Pete McCloskey is 90 now and John McCain is fighting what may be his last fight. The jackals, knowing that these old lions are vulnerable are attempting to politicize the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and to gut the Endangered Species Act simultaneously by attaching unrelated, anti-environmental riders. These riders would lessen protections for public lands, marine mammals, and endangered species.

Those who would invalidate the Endangered Species Act will tell you they are simply trying to “modernize” it. Don’t believe them. Each of the riders — no matter how innocuously named — is designed to weaken legislation that has brought back the bald eagle — the symbol of America. The Act has preserved endangered species for generations who will follow us. Many other species now recovering as a result of this legislation will be lost to our children if we allow the NDAA to be held hostage to poison pill riders. Opponents of the Endangered Species Act know that any stand-alone legislation to gut the Act would never pass. For that reason, they attempt to push these unrelated riders on must-pass bills, such as the NDAA.

For those who feel that the public interest is best served by private industry and the absence of sound laws based upon science and data — ask the passenger pigeon.


Major General Michael R. Lehnert retired as the Commanding General of Marine Corps Installations West. As Commanding General, he was responsible for environmental stewardship of seven major Marine installations on which endangered species were located. He chairs the Advisory Board of the Endangered Species Coalition. His views are his own and do not imply endorsement by the United States Marine Corps or the Department of the Navy.