As residential development sprawls toward once-isolated military bases, the Pentagon finds itself managing mini-refuges for threatened and endangered animals and plants.
Consider Fort Benning, Ga., where the appearance of a state-protected gopher tortoise in the path of troops and tanks has been known to halt training exercises. It's Army policy to steer clear of the base's 3,000 or so tortoises and keep track of their burrows, said John Brent, the base's chief of environmental management.
But watching out for tortoises and federally protected creatures is not a job the Department of Defense enjoys.
So DOD has formed odd-bedfellow alliances with environmentalists to protect habitat in hopes of keeping wildlife off the endangered species list by keeping development away from military bases.
"The military has a tremendous interest in keeping candidate species off the list and helping endangered species recover and get taken off the list," said Bob Barnes, the nonprofit Nature Conservancy's DOD liaison. The presence of listed species, he said, restricts what the military can do on its land.
The Pentagon protects its interests through the 2003 Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative (REPI), which authorizes the services to partner with local governments or private groups to buy land or easements to serve as undeveloped buffers around bases.
Buffers tamp down competition with residential areas near bases for air space, radio frequencies and water supplies. They also provide habitat that might help wildlife avoid being listed as endangered or threatened. Moreover, program boosters say, nobody can argue that REPI is a Pentagon land grab, since local government, nonprofits or private owners usually hold the deeds to buffer areas.
"Over the next 10 years, the program will probably be one of the most important programs within the Army for preserving land we have available for training and for other purposes," said Tad Davis, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and occupational health.
Fort Benning, where Davis once served, for example, has acquired more than 10,000 acres through easements, outright purchases and donations. Next month, the base plans to transfer about 150 gopher tortoises to the buffer lands ahead of planned construction on the base.
Many opportunities, little cash
Davis and others say the time to expand buffers is now, during the prolonged national real estate slump.
"It's important to make strategic investments now so the bases don't get locked in with suburban homes around them," said Beth Lachman, who wrote a 2007 RAND Corp. report on the REPI program for the Pentagon. "It's a win-win for everyone."
Program analysts see a need for urgency in expanding base buffers. With military housing needs expected to rise in the coming years as thousands of troops return from deployments outside the United States and soldiers shift to comply with domestic base realignments and closures, Army and Marine Corps bases in particular will be strained, according to a report to Congress on REPI last April.
"Some landowners may be willing to consider easements who were previously holding out for lucrative development offers," said Nancy Natoli, the Pentagon's REPI coordinator. But she cautioned, "It is actually a double-edged sword right now with the economy. Donations to private partners are down and local and state governments are broke," which limits what the services can do.
Finally, she said, "My experience with installations and this program over the last seven years supports the RAND study that there is a limited window of time to take advantage of these land protection opportunities."
From seven projects in its first funded year, REPI now has projects at 53 locations in 23 states, Natoli said. Eight new programs came online in fiscal 2009, she said. In total, the program has funded purchases of or easements on almost 83,000 acres, she said.
"I am certain that there are at least a dozen more locations that are in the process of encroachment planning and will submit for funding in the next few years," Natoli said.
But the program's current funding falls short of the $150 million a year urged by the RAND report (Greenwire, June 29, 2007).
In fiscal 2010, Congress appropriated just under $55 million for the program, Natoli said, and President Obama has asked for about $40 million for fiscal 2011, which is about $2 million more than his fiscal 2010 request.
The catalyst for the REPI program was the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which roosts in longleaf pine trees in the Southeast and once halted training exercises at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Conservation efforts for the longleaf pine ecosystem, including purchases of about 15,000 acres around Fort Bragg over the last 15 years, allowed the woodpecker to rebound and pass its recovery goal (E&ENews PM, June 6, 2007).
That program served as the pilot and model for REPI.
The Nature Conservancy helped facilitate the latest purchase of longleaf pine territory near Fort Bragg for the state of North Carolina and the Army last fall. The 1,200 acres cost $11.3 million and will eventually be added to a local park.
The base's buffer lands have allowed the base to scrape away some of the white stripes that marked the bird's presence on tree trunks and remove about half of the signs warning soldiers not to disturb the birds, said Mike Lynch, Fort Bragg's director of plans, training and mobilization. Soldiers now train as needed at the base without worrying about harming the birds, he said.
But the Army isn't letting down its guard, he said.
"Even though we have recovered the woodpeckers," Lynch said, "at the end of the day, a single species threatened to shut us down. If we stop that management, we could slip back, and there are dozens of other species that could just as easily be impacted and put us back in those conditions."