Environmentalists criticize Urban Shield for operating on nature reserve

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Alvin Wu/File

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Urban Shield, a training exercise for emergency response teams, sparked controversy when it held its operations in September on a bird nature reserve at Alameda Point that is home to endangered species.

According to John Lindsay-Poland, a member of the Alameda County committee on Urban Areas Security Initiative — a federal program that funds Urban Shield — repeated explosions during Urban Shield’s SWAT team competition raised environmental concerns.

“The conduct of military-type exercises on an area set aside for wildlife raises raises alarm bells about how our federal lands are managed,” said Richard Bangert, an environmental activist, in an email.

According to Veterans Affairs, or VA, Northern California Health Care System spokesperson William Martin, Urban Shield has taken place at Alameda Point in both 2017 and 2018. Lindsay-Poland said in an email that Urban Shield is funded by the Department of Homeland Security, which states that the funding must be used for counterterrorism training. The Alameda County board of supervisors voted to end the Urban Shield program this year in light of allegations of promoting hypermilitarization.

During the police component of Urban Shield, about three dozen SWAT teams responded to different scenarios in rotations over a period of 48 hours, Lindsay-Poland said in an email. He added that there were about 36 explosions over the course of two days.

Bangert said in an email that the nature bird reserve land was historically owned by the Navy, which then gave it to the VA. He added that the VA agreed to manage a colony of endangered birds that nest on 10 acres of undeveloped land and hired the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage these birds.

“Environmental considerations have been at the forefront of decision-making on the part of VA planners regarding emergency-response exercises and overall activity at the Alameda site,” Martin said in an email. “In fact, VA and exercise coordinators sought guidance from local U.S Fish and Wildlife Service subject matter experts on site at Alameda.”

Martin noted that the VA and Urban Shield exercise coordinators decided to use an area of the Alameda site that is far away from the colony of the endangered Least Tern birds. He added that the Least Terns migrated from the site well before the Urban Shield exercises took place.

According to Bangert, although the Least Terns were gone when the Urban Shield exercises took place, there are other species of birds that occupy the area year-round. He added that the birds include Horned Larks, Meadowlarks, Killdeer and various sparrows and that these birds use the land to look for food as well as a resting place.

Migratory birds from places such as Alaska have also been known to stop at the bird nature reserve, Bangert said.

“It’s not appropriate that (Urban Shield would) have activities like this impact wildlife in an area that has been set aside for wildlife,” said Alfred Twu, an environmental activist. “I think it’s another symptom of how the Urban Shield has ignored a lot of concerns, whether it is environmental concerns or police militarization concerns.”

Contact Yao Huang at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Yhoneplus.