Reflections on the military rarely conjure up images of environmental harmony.
War is hell, for the combatants as well as for the battlefields’ ecosystems. But one of the East Coast’s primary defense facilities has demonstrated that America’s fighting men and women can apply the same earnest professionalism to conservation that they do to combat.
Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina, is a 251-square-mile compound with nearly 100,000 personnel. Bragg, as it’s known, is situated in the piney Sandhills region one hour south of Raleigh. Home to the elite 82nd Airborne Division, Bragg’s woodlands and fields regularly experience artillery bombardment and gunfire as new recruits are put on the arduous road to joining the tough unit. Harrowing as such a fiery baptism must be to soldiers fresh out of high school, the wildlife native to the base are even more at risk, as disruption of feeding and mating behaviors, habitat loss, and even death were regularly viewed by officers as collateral damage while training for war.
It turns out that fiery disruption was exactly what the Bragg ecosystem needed.
The red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW) is native to the South’s formerly abundant longleaf pine forests. A cooperative breeder and one of the few birds to excavate nests in live, old-growth trees, the red-cockaded woodpecker lives in small family groups that assist in raising hatchlings. The extended family forages together, moving as a group from tree to tree. While this cooperative behavior sounds like a recipe for success, it is the RCW’s dependence on the once-abundant longleaf pine that caused its recent population crash. By mid-century, 86 percent of the Southeast’s old-growth longleaf pine forests had been cleared. And as the longleaf population dropped, so did the RCW, which was listed as federally endangered in 1970.
Enter Fort Bragg, the longleaf pines that buffer the base, and the Endangered Species Act.
In response to the RCW’s rapid decline, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued an emergency injunction in 1991 that immediately closed Bragg’s gun ranges to protect the woodpecker from disturbance. But rather than seeing this as an imposition, Fort Bragg’s personnel approached it with characteristic zeal.
Mike Lynch, the former director of planning for Fort Bragg, saw opportunity where others saw obstruction. While walking the site of an armed exercise that had ignited much of the surrounding undergrowth, Lynch noticed the profusion of Venus flytraps, rare wildflowers, longleaf saplings, and, flitting from one singed but unharmed mature pine to another, red-cockaded woodpeckers. The site was regularly used for maneuvers because of the open accessibility granted by gunnery-induced wildfires. It turned out the same habitat the Army preferred was precisely what the pines and woodpeckers were after. Seeing a win/win in the making, Lynch instituted a rotational controlled burn program that annually torches one-third of the base, or about 50,000 acres, thus keeping the longleaf forests ideal for aerialists of both the booted and beaked varieties.
Fort Bragg’s comprehensive, community-based approach to conservation is regional in scope and has been “highly successful,” according to Chief of the Endangered Species Branch Jackie Britcher. “RCWs are an indicator species — ecologically, politically, and legally. Fort Bragg’s aggressive management of hardwood stands has benefited the birds, the longleafs, and our entire mission.”
Bragg’s regional conservation efforts benefit greatly from the 17,000 acres of buffer zones ringing the base. Jeff Marcus, with The Nature Conservancy’s Sandhills Office said, “These buffers aren’t used for live fire or armored vehicles, but rather for orienteering and Special Forces exercises, basically whatever is compatible with longleaf and RCW recovery.”
Today Fort Bragg is home to 81,200 contiguous acres of longleaf pine, one of the largest concentrations in the country, and the base currently has the second largest red-cockaded woodpecker population in the world. The 82nd Airborne’s resolute motto of “All the way!” demands victory in the field, whether that means combat or conservation.