DOD:

More cash needed for base buffers -- report

A Defense Department effort to establish buffers around military bases needs at least $150 million per year to buy land and easements ahead of encroaching development, the RAND National Defense Research Institute said in a report released yesterday.

The buffers are aimed at blocking sprawling suburban development and protecting wildlife and plant habitat. They also head off competition for air space, radio frequencies and water supplies.

The Pentagon requested the RAND study, which evaluated the success of the Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative (REPI) at several bases between June and December of 2006.

The initiative, which began in 2003, has successfully mitigated encroachment pressures, preserved habitat and promoted military readiness, RAND concluded. But the nonprofit think tank said more money is needed.

In fiscal 2007, Congress provided $40 million to the DOD initiative, and President Bush requested $30 million for fiscal 2008. But "given land prices and buffering needs, [the budget] needs to be substantially higher," the report says, noting that some easements can cost as much as $15 million.

Thus far, the military has been successful in leveraging additional funds for its 24 REPI projects, having garnered $86 million in partner funds over the last three years.

DOD is hoping for the increase in federal funds, spokesman Chris Isleib said. "Conservation is a number one priority for us," he said. "It's the way we need to do business and the way we need to protect our resources, whether they be fuel or land or endangered species. ... It's all part of the ultimate goal of sustainability and preservation."

The study's lead author, Beth Lachman, said funding must be increased soon.

"It's important to [make purchases] now, especially in places that are still rural near the bases," Lachman said. "You have a landowner who owns 1,000 acres and is about to sell; well, if it gets developed and subdivided into 1-acre plots, you have 1,000 landowners instead of one to deal with."

Lachman also noted that buying land and easements now could save money for DOD later as land prices rise.

Congressional authorization

Although most bases were located far from major cities when they were opened decades ago, sprawling suburbs have moved out to meet them. Recognizing the problem, Congress authorized an expanded DOD effort in 2002 to partner with local governments or private groups to establish buffer areas around bases.

The directive allowing the military to fund land purchases through partnerships led to the creation of REPI. It was a key breakthrough, as the military is not supposed to own land through the initiative.

The partnership with the military "has been a very positive relationship," said Deborah Keller, a senior policy representative at the Nature Conservancy for Defense Department Conservation Partnerships in Florida. The military has worked with the group on buffers at Eglin Air Force Base and Naval Air Station Whiting Field, both of which RAND evaluated in its report.

"We partner with the military on base buffering [and try] to make sure the bases themselves do not become islands of biodiversity surrounded by a sea of houses and strip malls," Keller said.

Sprawl creates problems for the military and for natural resources. Development may cause "species to become threatened and endangered," Lachman said, explaining that when animals and plants on the base are classified as threatened and endangered, it can limit military training and testing.

DOD manages about 33 million acres. "We've got about 400 endangered or threatened species on our land, and we ... do everything we can to protect their habitat," Isleib said. "We manage our own behavior, change our training patterns and are careful about what times and what days and what times of the year we do certain things with training or tree harvesting."

The military's need to protect threatened and endangered species makes it essential for it to work with other federal agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, Lachman said.

For example, at Fort Carson, Colo., the declining black-tailed prairie dog population is a major concern. The creatures' habitat covers more than 50 million acres, Lachman said, so "what happens in Kansas can affect Fort Carson" even though the military has no control over environmental practices in that region.

"One of our recommendations in the report is to look at what's happening on other lands," she said.

'Win-win'

A perfect example of the conundrum is the West's declining sage grouse population, according to Lachman.

"BLM has approved 17,000 oil and gas drilling permits in the state of Wyoming since 2000 on BLM land," she added, noting that not all the permits have been implemented. "There is some scientific evidence [the drilling] hurts sage grouse habitat."

Lachman said studies have shown that biodiversity is most prevalent on federal lands and described DOD, BLM and Forest Service lands as the "most at risk."

"It's so important to make sure the sage grouse are protected on Forest Service and BLM land so the Department of Defense does not end up having to protect them" on the military bases if they become threatened or endangered, she said.

While the military has done a good job addressing sprawl issues, the report advised it to look more closely at these biodiversity concerns.

In some cases, the habitat made available through the buffering projects and the bases has kept animals off the threatened or endangered species lists, such as in the case of the United States' black bear population, the report said. The program also has helped preserve specific ecosystems, like the Central Shortgrass Prairie near Fort Carson.

At Eglin, a buffer project prevented the Yellow River Ravines from being developed and allowed the military to protect a 100-mile-long air strip corridor. Efforts like this one, said Lachman, are a "win-win situation" for the community and the Air Force.

"Increased funding from the Department of Defense for base buffering is essential," Keller said. "That's the bottom line."

Click here to read the report.

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