PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE, Texas — With a seashore so protected that a tire tread on a dune can bring a $5,000 fine, few locals believed the military would even consider moving its Vieques bombing exercises to Padre Island.
"They've gone to a lot of trouble to take care of this place. To open it to shelling is pretty strange," said Joe Mendez, 48, a guide on Laguna Madre, a narrow bay that shelters endangered wildlife between the island and mainland Texas.
Yet Padre Island, the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world, has the same distinct qualities that made Puerto Rico's island of Vieques ideal for joint Navy-Marine military practice, and last month the Navy mentioned it as one possible training ground.
The island is free from commercial air traffic. The land across the bay is rural, averaging one resident per three square miles.
Environmentalists say it is one of the planet's last havens for a host of endangered species and have staged a letter-writing campaign against moving bombing exercises to the island. The barrage of advocacy for Kemp's Ridley sea turtles, piping plovers and redhead ducks appears to have had an effect.
Gov. Rick Perry said Friday he was "deeply troubled" about possible environmental effects bombing could have on the area.
"This area of Texas is a precious jewel of natural beauty and fragile ecosystems," Perry said. "I am highly skeptical that the proposed use of this land for military training exercises is in Texas' best interests."
Other officials have vowed to fight the plan. Meetings scheduled by proponents have been canceled.
"We're delighted, but we're wary," said Pat Suter of the Coastal Bend Sierra Club. "This came about because it was going on in secret. We're just wondering how we are going to make sure it doesn't raise its ugly head again."
Some powerful Texans support moving the exercises to Padre Island, including Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Democrat on the House Committee on Armed Services who represents that part of southern Texas.
Ortiz, who was critical of continuing the exercises on Vieques, argues the move could bring thousands of jobs and other economic benefits to south Texas. It also could help Corpus Christi, the nearest large city, where 15,000 of the 285,000 residents work for or contract with the military.
Pentagon public affairs officer Lt. Doug Spencer said the Navy is assessing several sites. Officials have said the Navy and Marines could be forced to use a hodgepodge of existing ranges. Padre Island, where remnants of practice bombs from the 1940s and 1960s can still be found, is one.
"Obviously, Vieques is unique in its mechanism, which is why we haven't been able to find a one-for-one substitute," Spencer said.
The waters around Vieques allow for ship maneuvers, amphibious landings and anti-mining procedures on its beaches. Special ranges provide practice intercepting communications. But protests against the shelling and complaints about health damage have gained attention since a civilian security guard was killed in 1999. President Bush has said the shelling will end by 2003.
Like Vieques, Padre Island is largely undeveloped. It's southern tip holds the beach resort of South Padre Island, but about 75 miles of the island's 110-mile length is undeveloped.
Pelicans congregate on the islands, and the inland areas are home to threatened species like the ocelot and the Texas horned lizard.
Laguna Madre, a hypersaline, shallow bay, is a nesting area for rare birds and marine species.
Eighty percent of redhead ducks in the Western Hemisphere winter in the Laguna Madre, and 50 percent of fish caught along the Texas Coast originate there. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week designated more than 71,000 acres of the area as critical habitat for wintering populations of the piping plover, a small shorebird.
A bombing range on Padre Island would mean closing off some 20 miles of coast for 24 hours, several times a year. Adjacent inland areas would be closed for a week at a time.
"It's not that we don't like the military. We're all patriots," said Tobin Armstrong, a Kennedy County commissioner whose family has ranched the area for generations. "The problem is this is probably the most unique ecosystem on the North American continent."
On the Net:
Padre Island National Seashore: www.nps.gov/pais
Department of Defense: www.defenselink.mil