By GREG WALCHERFor several years I have been a senior adviser to the respected environmental firm, Dawson and Associates. The organization helps with projects that require permits, especially from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and the firm’s associates include numerous retired USACE officials. Many were generals, district commanders, and their civilian bosses at the Pentagon. Their personal and professional ties to the agency run deep, making their advice and assistance highly valuable to clients.
That close-knit community was understandably chagrined when a Pacific Legal Foundation senior attorney, Tony Francois, penned an editorial in “The Hill” calling USACE a “rogue agency.” He asserts that the original military mission of the Corps has diminished in importance, so it has become an out-of-control environmental regulator, almost for lack of anything else to do.
It is an oversimplification, because the agency’s environmental regulatory mission was assigned by Congress, not invented by bored bureaucrats. Nevertheless, there is a legitimate discussion about whether USACE is still the right agency for some of its functions. Its modern portfolio includes dams, power plants, and canals — which are also built and operated by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation. USACE’s work also includes environmental permitting, especially for projects that involve waterways and wetlands — which are also regulated by the EPA. No wonder local governments, utilities, and builders often feel lost in the shuffle of “who’s in charge?”
The Bureau of Reclamation was created for the purpose of building structures to bring water to cities and farms. Congress no longer funds such major water projects, making the Bureau’s modern mission uncertain. Today it is a water management agency, and a power provider, but not the largest in either case, nor is the federal government uniquely needed for either. The agency created to “make the desserts bloom” no longer builds water projects, but administers water systems like a mega-utility — primarily a local and regional function. Yet the Bureau is larger than ever, with more money and staff than at any time during its heyday; its $1.5 billion budget is more than the combined costs of the Hoover and Grand Cooley Dams. In Washington, bureaucracies always grow, never shrink.
With USACE, the “mission-creep” was more understandable, because Army engineers have often been the nation’s leading experts in providing needed services. The Corps was created at the onset of the American Revolution, and Army engineers built the fortifications from Bunker Hill to Yorktown. West Point was established in 1802 as the official school for Army engineers, always a critical component of any war effort, and its history is crucial to America’s survival. Army engineers built the bridges to get Burnside’s troops across the Rappahannock in 1862, and Patton’s army across the Rhine in 1945. They built the Panama Canal in 1914, eliminated underwater obstacles at Normandy in 1944, and constructed the Pentagon (still the world’s largest office building) in 16 months.
Naturally, when Congress decided to improve navigation on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in the 1820s, it turned to USACE for its expertise in surveying and dredging. That mission for administration of “civil works” continues to this day, and perhaps Congress should have foreseen the inevitable growth of bureaucracy, as Francois argues.
“Today the Corps of Engineers is less likely to be facing down tyranny than practicing it, in the form of abusive regulatory enforcement that punishes farmers and other property owners who seek to make productive use of their land.” He especially decries the Corps’ interpretation of “wetlands” to include not just the “navigable waterways” Congress specified in assigning enforcement of the Clean Water Act, but also “almost the entire network of non-navigable tributaries upstream of real rivers and lakes, including seasonal ponds and drainages on private property.”
In other words, Francois explains, “plowing a farm is the same as dumping truckloads of dirt into” the river, even though Congress explicitly exempted normal farming activities from USACE permits.
Today, “dredge and fill permits” take years, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Perhaps that’s because USACE has 37,000 employees to keep busy. It owns and operates 600 dams, 250 navigation locks, 75 hydroelectric power plants, 12,000 miles of canals, and more than 4,000 recreation sites at 383 lakes and reservoirs. That makes the Corps America’s No. 1 outdoor recreation provider (topping even the National Park Service). Do we really need world-class West Point engineers to oversee fishing, camping, and waterskiing?
Perhaps it is, as Francois claims, time for Congress to re-examine the agency’s mission and consider what work really requires military engineers.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.