In April, attorney generals from 39 states urged the U.S. Congress to reject a Pentagon proposal that would relax environmental laws on military bases.
Since the passage of the Clean Air, Water and Endangered Species Acts in the early 1970s, the Pentagon has had to comply with strict environmental laws governing how it manages its military reservation land.
There are more than 425 military installations in the United States, encompassing 12 million hectares of largely undeveloped land.
In the first of three reports from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, VOA's Rosanne Skirble examines how one of the world's largest and busiest military installations has embraced environmental protection as a means to fulfill its training mission.
Fort Bragg looks and feels a lot like a wildlife sanctuary. It has forests of tall long-leaf pine trees, and some 1,600 documented species including 60 rare and endangered plants and animals.
But make no mistake: the mission of Fort Bragg is to train soldiers for war.
It is the job of Training Chief Mike Lynch to ready soldiers for battle. The 45,000 men and women stationed here could be deployed anywhere in the world at short notice.
"But because of that the amount of training that we do is very intense, because we don't have a lot of time from the time we are notified to the time we leave," he said.
Soldiers need land and lots of it. They use it for tactical maneuvers, for live-fire exercises, for equipment and parachute drops and target practice.
But over the years suburban sprawl has pushed to the gates of the 65,000-hectare installation. And, along with it has come the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.
Under the Endangered Species Act, Fort Bragg was required by law to protect the bird, which is federally listed.
"So, environmental sustainability, environmental planning and processes are embedded in everything we do here, whether it be moving units and vehicles from areas of the [living quarters on base] or actions while they are in the training areas to coming back home," said Mr. Lynch. "Those tenants of environmental processes are embedded in our everyday routines."
That leads us to a firing range where soldiers are finishing up target practice.
"We're policing up the range," said a soldier.
That means the soldiers pick up litter. About 20 soldiers groom the range for cigarette butts and trash.
"We are the NCOs, the Non-Commissioned Officers and we just follow behind the soldiers to make sure that the job is being done," he said. "From basic training, one of the first things they teach you is to keep your environment clean, starting from your barracks, your personal hygiene. So this is just an extension of that hygienic practice. Regardless of where we are at, where we go, we are not supposed to leave anything behind when you move on because that also leaves tracks for the enemy to follow. At the end it is all part of the battle plan, attention to detail. That is what it is all about."
"Coordination is key," adds Terry Myers, who oversees the management of forests, wildlife habitat and the plant and animal species on Fort Bragg. All these efforts including today's prescribed forest fire are coordinated with training on base.
"It is a deliberate planning process, not just on the garrison staff, but with Terry Myers and his folks, my range control folks, where we sit down and look at what is it we need to do and how do we accomplish that," says Mike Lynch. "How do we get all the burning areas done that Terry needs to get done in a specific season, which is, oh by the way, the highest training period in the year? So we literally work that block by block. We say we are going to burn in one area and have soldiers over here and 48 hours later they are going to roll on through that area. So, it is orchestrating the events to the best that you can and then building enough flexibility so if a unit gets bogged down we haven't lost the momentum of the plan."
"It is mainly a process of sitting down and talking with each other and talking the issues out, deciding where there is common ground and what things we can do collectively to make all this work," says Terry Myers.
When asked if they've seen a change of culture and/or of attitude?
"Yeah, a big change of culture and attitude and Mike [Lynch] would say the same thing about us," says Terry Myers. "It was almost like tree hugger versus trainer. But now we are all trainers and we are all tree huggers. And that's the truth. I'm not just saying that. That's what it has come to now."
"I've seen this program go from 'What's a woodpecker to it's a woodpecker to you know the woodpecker isn't bad and it has done a lot of good things for us," replies Mike Lynch. "I will tell you that training land today that is being managed for woodpeckers and other species is better training land than it was 20 years ago. Because if you don't burn it, and don't get rid of all the under story, you have thickets and you can't maneuver through thickets. Well, you can, but you sound like a herd of elephants. When you are a soldier you want to be moving stealthily through the land, not making a lot of noise, having visibility so you can see the bad guys in front of you that you can't get out of. So by burning we are opening up that terrain. It's easier to maneuver through and because it is easier to maneuver through we are seeing less damage to it because it is open and it is accessible to the units."
Mike Lynch says the long-term goal is to reduce restrictions so soldiers can train using the same tactics they would use in war.
"And that is exactly why we are doing what we are doing," he said. [We want] to make sure that we have the ability in five years or in three years to adapt our strategies, our training tactics and not be hampered by the woodpecker, or a salamander, or a squirrel, or whatever."
But, he says, putting this plan into action takes a commitment from everyone from the garrison commander on down. He says its success on Fort Bragg has spurred other military installations to initiate similar plans.
In the next report, we will look at how Fort Bragg is applying sustainable environmental principles to everything from its "green" buildings to its permeable parking lots!