WASHINGTON– Acquiring land for U.S. military training is fraught with human and fiscal obstacles. Lack of available space, thorny negotiations with private landowners and budget grappling among the services are just a few of the problems. Likewise, divesting itself of land the military no longer needs has its own set of unique challenges, Pentagon land management experts told a congressional subcommittee today.

“It is an essential but complex task, and we use various tools to try to handle what our requirements are,” Keith Eastin, the Army’s assistant secretary for installations and environment, told the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee.

The Army is undertaking a multilateral approach to land use amid what Eastin said is a 4.5 million-acre deficit. That approach is to use private property for military purposes in partnership with owners who promise not to encroach on the Army’s share of the plot.

“We restrict what they can do in payment to the landowners so that they will not build houses on them and encroach on what we do in our training ranges,” he said. “But at the same time, they can use it for agriculture and other purposes.”

The Army also tries to more effectively use its current land, employ simulators over actual training exercises where possible, and adopt adjacent federal property before seeking to acquire privately owned tracts.

Eastin was joined at the hearing by his Navy and Air Force counterparts, and Wayne Arny, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment.

In testimony, the Defense Department and service representatives emphasized the importance of land use for military readiness, and characterized the acquisition of private property as a last resort for armed forces expansion.

Subcommittee member Rep. J. Randy Forbes of Virginia called land acquisition “one of the toughest issues we face” because of private property rights guaranteed in the Fifth Amendment.

“[The amendment] forbids the federal government from taking private property for public use without just compensation,” said Forbes, referring to the “eminent domain” clause in the Bill of Rights.

Arny said the department follows all federal and regulatory requirements in eminent domain cases. “These procedures ensure that owners of real property that we seek to acquire are treated fairly and consistently,” he said.

The Navy, which own 4.4 million acres — with roughly equal parts used by the Navy and Marine Corps — strives to be good stewards of land use, said B.J. Penn, the Navy’s assistant secretary for installations and environment.

“The department takes its land management responsibilities very seriously, and we work closely with our sister services and other federal agencies to ensure that our stewardship meets the department’s requirements and benefits the nation and our local communities to the maximum extent possible,” he said.

“We look forward to working with the new administration and Congress to expedite those actions that are of greatest benefit to streamline economically beneficial land actions and to ensure the department is able to fulfill its mission with the appropriate supporting infrastructure,” Penn added.

Kevin Billings, the Air Force’s acting assistant secretary for installations, environment and logistics, said he laid out four basic principles when he began his tenure.

“The first was to comply with the law. The second is to be good stewards of the environment and, equally importantly, [third] is to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars,” he said. “And fourth is to do this while remembering that taking care of airmen and their families is what allows us to accomplish our mission.”

Transparency, accessibility, and consistency enable the Air Force — the largest energy user in the federal government — to fulfill its obligations, Billings said.

“When we use this as a template for decisions in basing, these will serve the public well,” he said.

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