Thinking ‘Outside the Fence’ Leads to Innovative Conservation

November 1, 2015, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

Thinking ‘outside the fence’ leads to innovative conservation projects at military bases nationwide; for example, golden-cheeked warbler habitat conservation around Camp Bullis near San Antonio.Every military base of the Armed Forces within the United States is committed to fulfilling its mission, and some have been doing so for more than a hundred years. But as time goes on, outside factors can interfere with the ability of a base to complete that mission. Encroachment, suburbanization, complaints about noise or ordnance — even the presence of threatened and endangered wildlife species can impair a base’s readiness to efficiently and economically complete its mission.

In recent years, however, a number of bases have explored new strategies to think innovatively about lands “outside the fence.” Over time, many bases have had to adopt creative strategies to establish large buffers, protect wildlife species both on and off base, and think to the future about how best to preserve mission readiness. A special program created out of the Office of the Secretary of Defense called Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) was created to address this very need. 

REPI and Conservation

The REPI program is designed to “combat encroachment that can limit military training, testing and operations. The program protects military missions by helping remove or avoid land-use conflicts near installations and addressing regulatory restrictions that inhibit military activities,” according to a Department of Defense summary from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. 

A key component of the REPI program encourages the creation of partnerships with nonprofit conservation organizations and local and state governments. These partnership activities may include purchase of conservation easements, a form of permanent protection of natural lands that allows compatible uses by landowners such as farming, forestry and protection of threatened and endangered species to continue without disruption to military mission. 

The REPI program is seen as an excellent way to preserve missions, including live-fire training, mitigating noise conflicts, enabling continuation of night-operations training, protecting against electromagnetic interference and more. In addition, the REPI program has produced significant cost savings in multiple ways and is widely regarded as a success by the Department of Defense (DOD) and surrounding communities and landowners.

The idea of building resource-based partnerships is part of a larger trend to look at potential collaboration for energy and infrastructure, says Steve Bonner, a former natural resource planner for the National Park Service (NPS) and now president of his own company that facilitates such partnerships, SONRI Corp. Bonner points out that all military bases have a mandated responsibility to preserve natural resources on base, including managing habitat for wildlife, ensuring water quality and dealing with invasive species, among other responsibilities. He notes the DOD must also balance protection of environmental quality and encroachment on wildlife habitat on base, as well as off base.

Proof in Preservation

Robert Gregory, former executive director of the Land Legacy Foundation in Oklahoma and now president of the Compatible Lands Foundation, says that, initially, local landowners often have a high degree of skepticism about the idea of the military trying to preserve lands off base to free up lands on base to complete missions. “But once trust is developed and results are seen,” he says, “it’s a win-win for all.”

Gregory described some of the projects his Compatible Lands Foundation is working on at five bases across the country, including a project near Ft. Campbell in Christian County, Kentucky. The rural agricultural landscape surrounding the base contains some of the highest quality soils in the state, he said, and local landowners are passionate about protecting farming. By working together with the base and a number of local partners — including the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture, which provided a significant share of funding — the Army has been able to secure more than 8,000 acres of buffer lands under conservation easement under its version of the REPI program, the Army Compatibility Use Buffer program (ACUB).

One of the more successful examples of how the Army has creatively achieved this delicate balance of protecting threatened natural resources while preserving military mission has taken place in the lands surrounding Camp Bullis near San Antonio, Texas. The area hosts base operations and training support for Joint Base San Antonio Mission Partners, including firing ranges, simulation exercises and maneuver lands for training. 

The oak/Ashe juniper woods of Texas hill country are home to the golden-cheeked warbler, a neo-tropical species that nests exclusively in south Texas in very specialized habitat, and then winters in Mexico and Central America. These warblers — that nest nowhere else in the world but Texas — are a federally endangered species, and thus invoke all the protections such a designation brings. Still, the species continues to decline since its designation in 1991. Its habitat has been degraded by suburban development and the cutting of the juniper forests for roads, lakes and other activities, as well as the clearing of land for agriculture.

Jim Cannizzo, the administrative and civil law advisor who handles the Retained Army Functions at Fort Sam Houston and Camp Bullis, described how the Army, through its ACUB program, tackled the protection of golden-cheeked warbler habitat around Camp Bullis. In a concentrated years-long effort, the Army has been able to purchase and protect thousands of acres of buffer lands through conservation easements around Camp Bullis. Partners included the City of San Antonio, which transferred several thousand acres of land already set aside for aquifer protection. The Nature Conservancy pitched in, as well as Bexar County and private conservation organizations such as the Bandera Corridor Conservation Bank, a land conservation mitigation bank.

Estimates made by the partnering nonprofit conservation organizations and the Army calculate that up to $50 million has been saved by not incurring other costs that would have been necessary to protect the mission of the base. Without the conservation partnerships, any solution would have led to greater environmental impact, according to Cannizzo. “New roads would have been required to get to suitable training areas, a $2 million bridge would have needed to have been built, and an additional 5 miles of driving and lost training time would have been required to get to training areas,” Cannizzo said. “This was good for the Army, good for the environment and good for the local communities. It truly has been a win-win.”

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.