Operation Conservation

The U.S. military and The Nature Conservancy share a common goal.

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, and,
• buffering Florida’s military bases, which have large expanses of natural habitats, with protected conservation areas and connecting them to other protected areas.
• working in partnership to advance habitat restoration on the land, in watersheds 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 have led to encroachment issues both on and off the base endangered species have been displaced –sometimes their only remaining healthy habitat is on an installation where their presence might restrict military training operations. 

A Case Story for Habitat Management 

The Colonel was not a happy man. As an officer at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base, he had just been forced to reject a multi-million dollar test of the Star Wars missile defense system because he could not estimate how the proposed test would affect the base’s population of the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis). To comply with federal law, the Colonel should have had a good understanding of the endangered bird’s needs, since the base contains some of the best remaining examples of the woodpecker’s critical longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) habitat. Eglin, however, had never invested in basic inventory and monitoring. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, therefore, issued a Jeopardy Opinion for the red-cockaded woodpecker under the Endangered Species Act. Natural resource managers at Eglin had long known about the woodpecker— a federally listed endangered species since 1970 and the subject of considerable research. But the Department of Defense (DOD) lacked data on both what species and communities they had and how those elements should be managed. 

The Colonel and Eglin’s civilian natural resource managers now faced two compelling mandates: fulfill a key military mission and conserve an endangered species, as required by federal law. They needed more information about red-cockaded woodpeckers and their habitat, and, they needed to learn how to use that information to change the way one of the nation’s largest and most important air bases conducted its business.

Eglin contracted with The Nature Conservancy to facilitate an inventory and assessment which resulted in a five-year natural resource management plan. This plan set the standard for integrated, ecosystem-based management in the DOD and was the first such plan developed for any federal landholding. To this day, DOD Natural Resource managers and The Nature Conservancy share best management practices, staff and equipment for prescribed fire, invasive species control, and other resources and management techniques to support and increase biodiversity on and around military bases.

That first contact between Eglin AFB and The Nature Conservancy was made in 1988. Since then, Eglin has become one of the most sophisticated federal facilities in the country in terms of integrating ecosystem science and natural habitat management. A few years ago, Eglin exceeded their ambitious target of having 350 breeding clusters of RCWs on the base. The latest count in early 2014 estimated 432 breeding clusters and they have set a new goal to achieve 450 clusters to allow for more military mission flexibility.

Buffering of the Installations Needed

Habitats were getting healthier inside the fence line, but complaints about military noise, dust, and smoke from surrounding residential developments were beginning to force costly military mission adjustments and delays. Natural areas help keep these issues to a minimum. Realizing the value of buffering military bases with natural lands, the 2006 Florida Legislature amended the Florida Forever program to encourage using state conservation funds to secure such projects.

The Nature Conservancy completed an ecological assessment of potential conservation buffers which could be protected to reduce encroachment conflictsaround Eglin AFB and 9 other Florida military installations. The study creates a blueprint for future conservation action that has been enthusiastically welcomed by the military community,” said the Conservancy’s Deborah Keller, who serves as liaison between the two groups. “Our report shows a strong need for continued funding through land-buying programs such as Florida Forever, Florida’s Rural and Family Lands conservation easement program and the federal DOD Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) program which sends funds to states that are buffering their military installations.” It’s a solution that benefits military mission, people and nature.

In 2014, The Nature Conservancy along with conservation, military and defense community partners are working to increase conservation appropriations to complete the buffers, provide conservation corridors and connections to other protected areas and protect water resources.

Working Collaboratively to Secure the Health of the Gulf of Mexico

Following the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011, the Conservancy began consulting with communities and partners to compile a list of viable projects that could eventually be funded with fines collected from the oil spill under the RESTORE act. As the DOD have several installations located along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and in the watersheds that feed into the Gulf, the bases have played a vital and active role in identifying issues of concern and charting a way forward to advance the restoration of the Gulf.

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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