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War games and multiple use: is it mission impossible to train combat troops and manage natural resources on the same forested acres?

Tighter jets roar overhead as a herd of Sonoran pronghorn antelope roams the desert. Combat training maneuvers tear up one area of a military base as red-cockaded woodpeckers find refuge in an undisturbed buffer zone.

Over the years, it turns out, the Department of Defense has been protecting more than military secrets. Even as sophisticated new weapons demand ever larger training grounds, remnants of endangered species have survived by seeking the "safety of the fort." The armed guards of Army, Navy/Marine, and Air Force installations have unknowingly been defending natural resources at the same time as they guard national security.

The phenomenon of wildlife thriving on military bases is well known to at least one group-the 100 civilian foresters employed by the Department of Defense (DoD). They and 200 other natural-resource professionals-wildlife biologists, agronomists, soil conservationists-manage 35 million acres (25 million in the U.S., 2 million abroad, and 8 million leased from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and individual states). Of the total, about 2.3 million acres are heavily forested.

Forestry consultant Clark Row, who recently completed a study of DoD forestlands, reports, "Some wooded sites serve as playgrounds for tanks and artillery that chew up the landscape. The new heavy tanks can just walk over trees, and young tank operators, intent on learning the capabilities of their machines, often do."

In addition to vehicle-caused damage, training grounds are degraded by bivouac litter, tow wire, and other supplies left in the field. Improperly placed or refilled tactical positions are another problem. Much of the damage results from actions-like reckless driving-that would be poor tactics in real combat. To conserve forested training grounds as viable classrooms, the military has initiated programs in environmental awareness for tank jockeys and other combat troops.

At times, though, the Defense Department finds itself faced with a land-use dilemma that arises when exercises essential to combat training both damage the forest and require a steady supply of natural tree cover. The department's foresters resolve the dilemma by prescribing good old military R&R-standing in this case for rest and rotation.

Training grounds at Pinon Canyon in southeast Colorado, for example, are divided into five parcels, three of which are used for military exercises at any one time while the other two are rested. Fortunately, forests are capable of recovering from hurricanes, wildfires, and even war games.

It is ironic that endangered species can find refuge in the vicinity of military maneuvers. In Germany, residents were blaming forest management for the decline of an Alpine bird when the actual culprit turned out to be an onslaught of cross-country skiers using logging roads. On an adjacent NATO installation-off-limits to recreationists-bird populations were stable.

The forests in the 200 heavily wooded U.S. military installations at home and abroad benefit from strict military regulations that limit human use. What's more, the Defense Department is authorized to take possession of all lands within the boundaries of its bases, meaning that the bases are not laced with inholdings of privately owned land as is often the case in national forests, parks, wildlife refuges, and even wilderness areas.

The Defense forests, like good soldiers, are versatile. In addition to providing training grounds and wildlife habitat, they buffer military operations from civilian neighbors. They help control soil erosion, regulate stream flows, and-with the sound of mortar fire in the distance-provide outdoor recreation. At Avon Park Bombing Range in central Florida, for example, 3,000 people visit each year to hunt and fish in areas open to public entry.

The military lands also produce commercial timber. Military foresters conduct harvests in accord with a directive mandating sustained yield. At the same time, timber sales earn income that covers the cost of the department's forestry program. Since military installations vary in size from million-acre bases to small radar stations, not every site is self-supporting. But overall, the forestry program pays for itself.

This accomplishment, a source of pride for DoD foresters, also accounts for some of their problems in gaining recognition. A small, self-sustaining program may be taken for granted on a military staff. The program's paying its own way didn't happen overnight, and it isn't done with mirrors.


Because of its focus on land forces, the Army has the greatest number of forested acres-some 1.4 million. Its largest forests are found at Fort Stewart and Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Army foresters fit their management to military needs. Training exercises that require corridors of open space for tanks and large vehicles might be the occasion of a timber sale. Other missions might require planting or clearing in a distinct pattern to provide vehicle concealment.

The Air Force needs vast acreages-or rather the sky above them-for its training missions. At some point in their careers virtually all fighter pilots train at the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range-4,000 square miles of Arizona desert.

The 400,000 acres of Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the DoD's single largest installation, were originally part of a national forest. Much of the land was planted to sand pine to revegetate overgrazed pastures. Today these stands are understocked and offer potential for harvesting and replanting with more valuable species. A recent EPA study estimated that conversion of 25,000 acres of sand pine to longleaf pine would increase the forest's carbon-sequestering capacity fourfold.

When people meet a Navy forester, they invariably ask, "Does the Navy have trees?" It does-154,809 acres of them-generally limited to small coastal installations. Near the entrance to Puget Sound in Washington state, for example, is a 2,700-acre Navy unit called Indian Island. On these acres Navy foresters help manage a marsh, bird sanctuary, heron rookery, deer herd, nesting eagles, miles of beaches noted for clams, and a protected old-growth Douglas-fir forest.

The Marine Corps has a total of 141,077 forested acres, including Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and Quantico in Virginia. Almost everyone has personal ties to at least one branch of the armed services and to one or more military bases. My nephew went through basic training at Quantico and was married there in the chapel. That ceremony-complete with crossed swords-gave me my first glimpse of the Quantico forest.

A more recent field visit demonstrated how the Marines manage the base's 58,000 wooded acres as part of an award-winning natural resources program. It also showed that managing a military forest requires a different mindset from caretaking a national forest.

Quantico's forestry branch is supervised by William Cross, who reports that at times his staff ends up managing forest clearings rather than trees. When a closed and capped landfill began eroding, for example, the foresters recommended planting the site to grass rather than trees-roots might penetrate the clay cap. And when a gravel pit was closed, they had the steep sides bulldozed to rounded slopes and planted with a mixture of millet and rye for wildlife forage.

Tank trails traverse Quantico's forests like bridle paths. When a large mudhole developed, foresters and military officers had to weigh the advantages of providing tank operators with hands-on experience in mud maneuvers versus the disadvantages of feeding sediment into an adjacent stream that drains into the Potomac River and ultimately into Chesapeake Bay. Foresters concluded that construction of a catchment basin between tank trail and stream might solve the problem for the time being. Eventually, the trail may need to be relocated away from the stream. Quantico foresters manage a series of helicopter landing sites, which they have begun to enlarge to serve as wildlife feeding plots. Deer and wild turkey graze on millet, rye, and fescue grasses between helicopter landings. Use as wildlife pasture reduces maintenance costs and carbon emissions from mowers.

Bruce Frizzell, supervisor of Quantico's environment section, points out an advantage of DoD forestry: "In Virginia, private forestland owners are encouraged to follow Best Management Practices set by the state legislature, but in practice, a good deal of private forest management is still conducted with a handshake between owner and logger and little subsequent followup." The U.S. Navy requires that Marine forests be managed in accord with state Best Management Practices, and Quantico foresters supervise all logging on base to see that contractors comply.

Harvesting timber on a military base carries its own special risks. Bullets lodged in trees are a major concern. One logging contractor installed metal detectors in his sawmill and concluded that the first detection more than paid for the equipment, when weighed against the cost of damaged saw blades or injured employees.

Quantico forests support thick stands of Virginia pine, a pioneer species that is being replaced with more desirable commercial species such as loblolly pine. According to forester Cross, when newly planted seedlings needed protection during a war game, the site was designated a mine field for the duration of the exercise.

On some planted sites at Quantico, two-year-old loblolly pines stand five to six feet tall. Reforestation is not a problem here, Cross says. Just turn your back and a clearing is reforested.


Managing natural resources is not something trendy that the military recently tacked onto its mission. As far back as 1823, the need for ship masts inspired the first setting aside of federal land as a forest reserve. And the Army has had forest-management plans since 1903 when Gifford Pinchot worked with the War Department (predecessor of Defense) to produce a plan for the forests of West Point military academy.

In 1924 several forested military bases were briefly designated as units of the National Forest System. Then during the Depression, the government assigned a number of degraded lands to military uses, although 80 percent of current Defense lands were acquired some years later during World War II.

Many were overcut or overgrazed lands. Clark Row observed in his report, "If you trace on a map the location of military bases along the Atlantic Coast, you will find that a string of bases, beginning with Andrews in Virginia and extending down to Eglin in Florida, are all located on a sand ridge of land that, prior to military ownership, produced a succession of failed farms. "

During World War II, many acres were cleared for construction and training grounds. When dust from erosion began to damage aircraft engines, the armed forces hired soil conservationists to undertake massive control programs, including reforestation.

But Defense foresters were few and far between until 1961 when Congress allowed timber proceeds to reimburse forestry expenses. A 1981 amendment gave host states 25 percent of the net proceeds, an allotment that was increased to 40 percent in 1984. Today gross receipts are approximately $12 million a year, and the total state pay-back averages 1 million.

In his report, Row suggests ways to increase forest cover and hence income. Applying state-of-the-art technology could reduce erosion of training grounds and restore degraded lands. Urban forestry practiced in housing areas could increase energy efficiency and boost morale. And climate-change research suggests that Defense foresters might introduce new intensively managed carbon-sink forests to counterbalance carbon emissions on military bases. How do the department's foresters feel about these new directions added to the programs they already have? At the 1990 convention of the Society of American Foresters, one put it this way; "I could never go back to traditional forest management now."

Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney has issued a call for the department's personnel to serve as leaders in complying with federal environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. The Department of Defense has undertaken a partnership program in which the armed services work with environmental groups to implement wetlands and habitat-management provisions. The Nature Conservancy has developed an ecosystem database used by military land managers, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provides specialized scientific expertise. Military installations are also taking part in the American Forestry Association's Global ReLeaf initiative and in President Bush's America the Beautiful tree-planting program.

Defense Department foresters are not subject to the same transfer policies as military personnel, and it is not uncommon for a forester to survive a dozen base commanders. Each of the latter may have different views on management of natural resources. As one DoD forester put it, "One commander may be an avid hunter and the next a preservationist." It is the forester's job to sell his wildlife-management plan to both. Some commanders may see forest management as something conducted on the periphery of the main mission. Again, it is up to the forester to integrate his program with the military.

Defense Department forestry is still dominated by men, although a few women are making inroads. At a DoD meeting held during the Society of American Foresters convention, male colleagues razzed one forester about working for a female boss. His reply "Well, now, c'mon fellas, it's just like at home"-revealed that not only does sexism live, it evolves new genotypes. But a Marine forester obviously had the respect of her peers during a workshop when her comments revealed expertise and field experience.

Both are needed to juggle the demands of the military mission with sound principles of forest management. Perhaps better known in the public mind for defoliation than for reforestation, the Department of Defense has a forestry program of credit to the nation. Though their numbers are few and their budgets minuscule compared to the total military budget, Defense foresters are making invaluable contributions to conservation.
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Title Annotation:includes related information on protection of red-cockaded woodpecker
Author:Rideout, Greg
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Previous Article:Updating the old-growth wars.
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