Florida

Operation Conservation

At first glance, the U.S. military and The Nature Conservancy might seem like strange bedfellows. But the two share common goals:

  • managing the natural habitats on the military bases to maximize biological diversity
  • buffering Florida’s military bases, by preserving expanses of working lands and connecting them to other protected areas
  • working in partnership to advance habitat restoration on the land, and along the coast.

Florida’s military bases were -- and still are -- home to a large number of threatened and endangered species. Growing human populations and changing land uses near the bases in some cases led to endangered species being displaced – sometimes their only remaining healthy habitat is on an installation where their presence might impact military training operations.

Working Collaboratively to Preserve Florida’s Unique Wildlife and Grasslands

While Floridians and millions of people elsewhere are familiar with the iconic Florida Everglades, few realize that just to the north there was once an extensive grassy landscape that historically covered nearly 2,000 square miles of south-central Florida. Called the Florida Dry Prairie, this sub-tropical wet grassland is the only example of its type in the United States.

Avon Park Air Force Reserve is the only federal land boasting intact Florida dry prairie. Over the years, Air Force operations have perpetuated the grassy landscape but in 2013, The Nature Conservancy in close coordination with the Air Force and conservation partners implemented restoration efforts designed to further strengthen the grassland’s health while enhancing the military mission.

The project’s primary focus was the Reserve’s South Tactical Range, which houses one of the two largest remaining grasslands and provides critical habitat for the federally endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow. Efforts to restore the prairie’s natural integrity resulted in the removal of 286 acres of invading pine and oaks from within 3,763 acres of core grasslands. This coupled with the removal of two miles of fence-lines added 474 acres of additional core habitat for the federally endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, a 12% habitat increase.

The restoration effort was a win-win for the military and nature. The removal of woody growth significantly improved mission capabilities within the South Tactical Range by clearing obstructive vegetation from 34 targets. And, Florida Grasshopper Sparrows successfully established nests and fledged for the first time in six years.

Restoration efforts were also implemented on the Reserve’s second remaining grassland which has resulted in a recovery of native plant diversity and reduced habitat fragmentation.

Increasing Efforts for Collaborative Conservation in Central Florida

The Nature Conservancy has partnered with Florida state and local agencies, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Defense and the Interior to protect habitats, working lands, and natural corridors connecting buffer areas through fee simple acquisitions and purchase of conservation easements. In central Florida, the Conservancy’s work around Avon Park Air Force Reserve, a 106,000 acre military training area, has earned the Sentinel Landscape designation from the three federal agencies.

Sentinel Landscapes are places where preserving the working and rural character of key landscapes strengthens the economies of farms, ranches, and forests; conserves habitat and natural resources; and protects vital test and training missions conducted on those military installations that anchor such landscapes.

The Sentinel Landscape Project designation will bring a more streamlined approach to leverage each of the agencies’ expertise and resource for the benefit of the region. This is a big win for central Florida and the beginning of a long-term effort to strengthen the network of military, natural, and agricultural infrastructure that supports the region.

As Florida’s military bases are home to a large number of threatened and endangered species that are thriving on well managed lands, it meets the Conservancy’s mission objectives to partner with the Department of Defense and the individual bases to protect them from encroachment and connect these lands to other protected areas.

On many fronts in Florida, the relationship between conservation and defense is a natural.

For more information about the partnership, contact Deborah Keller at (850) 222-0199 x 104 or dkeller@tnc.org

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