Base instinct: DoD and the woods of home.
The Department of Defense as stewards of the land? The idea that an organization known for the juggernaut-like prowess of its heavy armor, the awe-striking lethality of its airborne weaponry, and its ability to fling a broadside of shells the size of BMWs across 20 miles of water and create a crater into which a small village would fit does not exactly inspire thoughts of pristine woodland streams or wildfowl-filled wetlands. Yet the same Department of Defense that can defoliate a forest from the land, sea, and air is also very much involved in reclaiming threatened tracts of old-growth timber, protecting the habitats of endangered birds, and improving tens of thousands of acres of wetlands for recreation and study.
My first experience with DoD's land-management policies came 13 years ago when I was a student in the Air Force Combat Survival School in the Colville National Forest north of Spokane, Washington. As part of an escape and evasion exercise, I had successfully negotiated a mist-filled grove of aspen when I paused short of a well-tended gravel-packed road overlooking the Ruby Creek valley nearly a thousand feet below. I peered cautiously through the tangle of kinnikinick vines and Douglas-fir deadfall for signs of my pursuers. Satisfied that I hadn't been followed but wary nonetheless, I started forward, then quickly pulled back at the sound of a tracked vehicle approaching from my right. Pulling an armful of fir boughs across my body, I huddled down and waited as it passed by. From my vantage point just inches from the treads, I could make out the dust-covered words "U.S. Air Force, Fairchild AFB" on the side of the vehicle's cab. It was a maintenance track, similar to a Snowcat, grooming the roads and trails that laced the 370,000 acres of the Survival School's training area.
Thirteen years later I had a chance to revisit the school's forested campus, and, absent the pressure of being pursued, I learned more about the Air Force's role in preserving its wilderness classroom.
With 6,000 students training annually in the forest--building fires, improvising campsites and shelters with available materials (without damaging live growth), hiking, foraging, practicing helicopter retrievals, and, as a final exercise, attempting to avoid capture during a period known as "escape and evasion"--it is impressive that few, if any, signs of human encroachment are apparent, even upon close inspection.
Air Force maintenance crews from Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane are assigned to the national forest to care for the many miles of road and trails and general upkeep of the property in an arrangement with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest Service. As I was to learn later, the Air Force's commitment to keep the land as pristine as possible is not restricted to the Combat Survival School, or even to the Air Force. Since the end of World War II, stewardship of the land has been a significant element of the Defense Department's overall mission. The following examples are illustrative of DoD land-management policies:
Because the crews of U.S. submarines need to remain in contact with their command centers, the Navy developed a system of extremely low frequency (ELF) transmitters. Each consists of a web of long underground cables that emit very low frequency signals, which radiate along the curve of underground geological structures and provide a communications link to submerged subs. It should be noted that the ELF program is not without controversy. In Clam Lake, Wisconsin, and in northern Michigan, public fear of potential health risks associated with ELF radiation forced the Navy to provide a number of radiation studies of its ELF sites. Despite continuing controversies, both sites are in operation. In the words of a Navy spokesperson, "Cold war or not, we still need to be in touch with our submarines."
In the case of the Jim Creek ELF facility in western Washington State, the site is well removed from populated areas. It is noteworthy for its location in an old- and second-growth, mixed forest of Douglas-fir, western redcedar, western hemlock, Sitka spruce, bigleaf maple, black cottonwood, and red alder. The 225-acre forest surrounding the radio station boasts trees ranging in age from 40 years to approximately 1,800 years for some of the larger cedars.
The Navy has focused on buying cutting rights, which did not transfer with the original bill of sale. Because the old-growth is contiguous to the two lakes and creek that supply the radio station's water, the Navy has long contended that any logging of the stands would adversely affect its water resource. In 1992, the Navy received money through the federal Legacy Program to purchase the cutting rights, in order to protect the old-growth stand and further enhance its value as a site for recreation, public education, and scientific study.
When B-52 Stratofortresses from Barksdale Air Force Base outside Shreveport, Louisiana, fly their missions, they lift off from a runway adjoining 20,000 acres of pine and mixed hardwood forest where 1,600 acres of newly restored wetlands support a thriving population of wood ducks, herons, bald eagles, beavers, otters, and deer. The Legacy Program helped fund the restoration of the wetlands, but the base has been actively improving the entire 20,000-acre ecosystem for more than 20 years.
And in North Carolina, when Marines in training storm the coast near Camp Lejeune or when Army tanks from Fort Bragg near Fayetteville maneuver past the habitat of the red-cockaded woodpecker, they do so within guidelines that restrict their activities to areas away from protected habitats and endangered species.
Although the nation's military policies have not always been sensitive to stewardship principles, by the end of the Second World War Defense Department planners were beginning to recognize the linkages between land management and their ability to maintain high levels of combat readiness. No new land is forthcoming for the military's use, prompting in large part DoD's decision to protect its land and water resources. That includes more than 25 million acres of land--six million of that forested--and water resources within the boundaries of military installations. By agreement, the military's land base also includes an additional 15 million acres of Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land on which DoD trains.
A classic example of the anti-expansion pressure that faces the Defense Department can be drawn from the Air Force's experience at Saylor Creek, Idaho, where the Air Force maintains a 108,000-acre air-to-ground bombing and gunnery range. In 1989 the Air Force sought to expand the area more than tenfold, to 1.3 million acres. Its argument--that it needed to expand to improve training--did not impress local, state, and national public interests, which subsequently overwhelmed the proposal, forcing the Air Force to scrap its plans.
Some other forces restraining military operations are no bigger than a bird: The red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis), an endangered species, is a notoriously shy bird of limited range that has a definite habitat preference for the kind of mature pines that exist in and around military installations in the Southeast, including Ft. Bragg. Armored and infantry training operations have been modified to give the woodpecker a wide berth, forcing Army planners to explore methods for luring the birds away from the military operations area and into a more stable habitat.
For many years Defense Department officials and base and post commanders have looked at the properties they manage with a self-interested policy of mission-preservation coupled with a very real appreciation for the environment in which they must operate. Thirty years ago, General Thomas D. White, then the Air Force's chief of staff and an avid outdoorsman, said, "Part of the defense job is the safeguarding of the land, timber, fish, and wildlife, the priceless natural resources which make this country worth defending."
As self-serving a message as that might be, it nonetheless provided the impetus for creating the Legacy Program as part of the Defense Appropriations Act of 1991. Legacy unifies and expands a variety of natural and cultural resource-management programs that were operating base-by-base and service-by-service. Prior to Legacy, DoD supported the military installations' efforts to manage their natural resources. Money was provided from DoD operations and maintenance (O&M) accounts or from resource-generated revenues (such as commercial forestry or hunting and fishing permits) to enhance forests, wetlands, and coastlines; protect endangered plant and animal species; or identify and preserve cultural and historic landmarks.
As far back as the 1950s, many bases were working to protect the lands and marine resources under their control, and many others were working with their local civilian communities and the states in which they were located to highlight and preserve a broad canvas of natural, cultural, and historic resources. What was lacking was a unifying theme and a dedicated funding mechanism. The Navy's purchase of cutting rights at Jim Creek on the western slope of the Cascades in Washington is an example of Legacy's ability to help broker a solution to an otherwise intractable problem.
The Legacy Program, initially funded at $10 million (FY '91), now commands a Congressionally approved budget of $50 million. It is not an overarching environmental protection service, nor is it a center for cultural or historic preservation. Individual services and bases must continue to identify their own stewardship goals and, once supported by Legacy funds and technical resources, must devise and execute their own protection or preservation programs.
Yet not all local base initiatives are predicated on supplementary funds; often environmental stewardship and military operations can and do exist side-by-side. This is the case at the Marine Corps Air Station at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. The Hawaiian stilt, a black-and-white wading bird, makes its nest on tufts of land in the middle of coastal wetlands. Over time the nesting areas grow together, merging with the shoreline and exposing the stilts to predators. To help the birds maintain their micro-island habitat, the Marines run tracked vehicles through the wetland vegetation, creating a series of islands and channels in the process and recreating the stilt's favored nesting sites.
Other bases are tackling other environmental challenges. At the Presidio near San Francisco, the Army is endeavoring to protect and transplant the only known specimen of Raven's manzanita (genus Arctostaphylos), a rare shrub of the heath family. At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio, a team of volunteers planted 3,600 native prairie wildflower seedlings on a 100-acre site as the first step in a plan to recreate an example of the globally endangered tallgrass prairie. And at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Army environmentalists are working to keep open a vital wildlife corridor running through the base by maintaining a continuous band of forested lands of sufficient width to encourage animal migration unimpeded by local roads or other man-made obstacles.
Given the scope of the forests and open lands the Defense Department owns or uses, its environmental track record is not without blemishes. Tanks are, after all, tanks, and wherever they and their supporting forces operate, the ecosystems they traverse can never be the same. Nor can the Air Force expect to reclaim the lands it uses for air-to-ground gunnery and bombing practice--as witness the thousands of acres of stunted pine forest outside Eglin Air Base in Florida.
Yet the U.S. military seems to be making the effort to have a positive impact on the ecosystems within its jurisdiction. Project by project, service by service, independently and with the ever-growing support of the Legacy Program, there are signs that the old guard, accustomed to rolling over the forest opposition, is now backing up and taking a hard look at what it can do to preserve that which it defends.
AIR FORCE GREEN
The Air Force has new marching orders in Oklahoma, and the result will be a first for the Department of Defense. Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma's largest employer, is creating on urban greenway that will include verdant paths of grass, a garrison of trees, ponds full of fish, a jogging trail, and urban wildlife habitat.
"It is our conviction that if we can instill in people an appreciation for smaller resources right here where we live, then those people will have a greater respect and appreciation for our larger national treasures such as national forests, national grasslands, and national wildlife refuges," said Major General Joseph Spiers, Tinker's installation commander.
Located five miles from downtown Oklahoma City, the base was born on a tall-grass prairie during World War II. Since then, it has grown to 5,000 acres, more than 80 percent of that developed. Although the base is heavily industrialized and surrounded by urban areas, it maintains a firm commitment to managing its natural resources.
The 110-acre greenway's three core areas will be linked by a 1.5-mile asphalt jogging trail. Trees and shrubs have been planted to obscure the view of base buildings and create a more natural setting. Wildlife will benefit from greenway plantings that provide food and cover, including corn, oats, millet, and a variety of trees including the Russian olive, oak, pecan, dogwood, and mulberry.
Already in place are a three-quarter-mile trail across riparian areas and part of a remnant native tall-grass prairie, as well as three permanent ponds to provide flood control, fish and wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation. Two docks improve access to fishing, and islands are being established to enhance wildlife habitat.
Also planned: an environmental education center, extensive wildflower plantings, wildlife observation platforms and blinds, detention ponds to reduce urban flooding and provide marsh habitat, and a natural system for sediment and nutrient filtration.
The greenway will be open to active-duty and retired military and civilian personnel and their families, and to the public by appointment. Base officials say they plan to target local school groups.
BARKSDALE: A SUCCESS STORY
Barksdale Air Force Base perhaps best illustrates the evolving enlightenment of DoD toward protection of its forest resources. Built in the mid-1930s, Barksdale once stood on a treeless expanse of bottomland and sandy hills east of Shreveport, on the western bank of the Red River in northwestern Louisiana. Shreveport was established in the 1830s as a timber-milling and cotton-distribution center, but the virgin hardwood forests of the region were cut down to make room for cotton and corn fields until, by 1930, little if anything remained of the original forests.
At the beginning of Barksdale's development, an area known as the East Reservation was set aside as an Air Corps bombing range for propeller-driven aircraft. The 20,000-acre range provided adequate practice space through World War II until the introduction of faster fighters and large bombers with their appetites for extremely expansive maneuvering areas measured in hundreds, even thousands, of square miles. Barksdale's suddenly too-small range was left to nature and the process of succession, with one exception: Beneath the reservation were substantial repositories of oil and gas, which were quickly tapped as sources of revenue for the federal government.
By the early 1960s, a second-growth forest of shortleaf and loblolly pine, mixed with stands of hickory and oak and bordered by ragged dogwood, redbud, and hackberry, surrounded cypress-dotted lakes, where fishing was popular with base personnel. The forest's vitality was enhanced by a thriving deer population and an abundance of small mammals. In addition, the reservation developed the dubious distinction of containing at least one of every species of poisonous snake found in North America.
For the most part, the reservation's forest ecosystem developed naturally for nearly 40 years without a definite environmental plan. Civil engineers maintained the network of dirt and gravel roads leading to oil and gas well heads, and regulated hunting seasons in order to manage the resident deer population. This hands-off approach to forest management, while allowing for natural succession, also triggered the decline of the reservation's wetland resources. That problem in turn threatened the viability of the second-growth forest as a wintering and breeding ground for wood ducks and other wetland species.
By the mid-1970s, as environmental stewardship issues received widespread public and media attention, Barksdale began a concerted effort to inventory and manage the reservation's resources. In the mid-1970s it initiated a program to restore wetlands in the East Reservation.
With the advent of the Legacy Program in 1991, an infusion of restoration-dedicated funds enhanced a partnership between Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Soil Conservation Service. A couple of developments in the early '90s sparked significant progress for Barksdale's stewardship plans and helped triple the wetlands acreage on the reservation.
Now the reinvigorated woodyduck population is filling 200 nesting boxes placed around the reservation. Bald eagles, herons, egrets, ibises, and ospreys are taking advantage of the expanded wetland habitat, as are the resident alligators. The whitetail-deer population fluctuates between 600 and 800, and armadillos share the reservation with expanding otter and beaver families. Wild turkeys, coyotes, and bobcats are slowly increasing.
The bottomland hardwoods, so long ignored, are now considered to be the best example of hardwood forest in the Red River Valley. Oaks with trunk diameters exceeding three feet are not uncommon, and hickories and pecans are thriving. The upland pines, predominantly shortleaf, have become an economically viable product, and approximately 150 acres of trees are harvested per year.
Timber harvesting has been a staple income for the Department of Defense for many years, and because 40 percent of net profits from DoD timber sales is distributed to local governments for road and school improvements, civilian economies benefit from DoD forestry programs.
Writer/photographer Jim Moore covers a variety of subjects, including the military, from his home in Alexandria, Virginia.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article; US Department of Defense|
|Date:||May 1, 1994|
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