Army chiefs have been given an ultimatum to justify their use of 2,000 acres of Dartmoor National Park for training élite troops amid protests that the military's continued presence in the national park is "ridiculous".
The Dartmoor National Park Authority has taken the unprecedented step of extending the Ministry of Defence's licence which lets soldiers train on Cramber Tor only until November 2002.
The consent was given on condition that the Army carries out an environmental impact assessment of its training operations in the protected park as part of an application for a new, nine-year term bitterly opposed by conservation groups.
The extension was granted as the long-running battle intensified between the military and local campaigners, who claim Britain's shrinking armed forces no longer need access to tracts of wilderness.
John Bainbridge, the chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, said: "It is now up to the Army to prove it still needs Cramber Tor to train in a place declared open to the nation. We don't think a national park is the right place for military activity there are just too many conflicts between soldiers carrying out training and ordinary people trying to enjoy the countryside."
The association criticised the environmental assessment being requested from the MoD, rather than an independent body whose objectivity would be "unquestionable".
Cramber Tor, 20 square miles of moor near Plymouth, is used by Royal Marine commandos and other troops for "dry" training without live ammunition or heavy vehicles. Soldiers are allowed to use pyrotechnics such as smoke bombs but are given instructions to work around the public, whose access to Cramber Tor is not formally restricted.
Opponents, who say it is unrealistic for soldiers, hikers and mountainbikers to share the area, believe the military should stop training in national parks.
Dartmoor National Park Authority, whose planning committee granted the Cramber Tor licence extension last Friday, said it had a balanced approach. "We would prefer not to have military activities in the park but we have few complaints about what they actually do," a spokesman for the authority said.
The MoD has access to about 150,000 hectares in the parks, a figure it says represents 3 per cent of the total and in many cases predates the creation of the national parks.
MoD officials argue that the changing nature of the military with the dominance of mechanised warfare and the large numbers of troops once stationed abroad now back in Britain means the armed forces have a greater need of areas such as Cramber Tor.
Major David Cummings, speaking for the Army, said: "Military vehicles can now cover large distances very quickly. We need areas like Cramber Tor for vital training exercises."
The Army denied allegations about its environmental assessment, saying it would consult with bodies such as English Nature, the Government's watchdog.
A formal application from the MoD requesting a new training licence is expected to be submitted by the end of this year.Reuse content