Environmental team manages successful combination of military training and conservation
July 1, 2010
HOHENFELS, Germany -- Tank trails and roads cut across the 40,000 acres of the Hohenfels training area, dusty brown ribbons that vehicles use to carry Soldiers, munitions and equipment through a simulated war zone for multinational military training.
While the words "military training" evoke many different mental images, a flourishing symbiotic relationship with the natural environment is probably not one of the most common. However, according to Dr. Albert Boehm, an environmental engineer with the U.S. Army Garrison Hohenfels Department of Public Works Environmental Division, the Hohenfels training area is a haven for many threatened and endangered species of plants and animals that have a home not in spite of, but actually because of the presence of military training.
According to Boehm, the training area -- free from agricultural, residential and economic development -- provides habitats no longer found outside its borders.
"Because of the military training here this area is representative of what it was like decades ago," said Boehm. "There are very few areas left that are similar."
And it is not just keeping modern civilization out that has created a flourishing ecosystem; Boehm said the training itself actually aids in maintaining biodiversity.
"Almost every meter off post is used for agriculture, forestry or other economic development, here you have some disorder," said Reiner Buettner, a zoologist at the USAG Hohenfels Environmental Division.
For example, Buettner said disturbances such as potholes formed by tanks end up creating a vital habitat for the endangered yellow-bellied toad. Hohenfels is home to one of the largest populations of this species that, due to modern practices, cannot find a viable habitat in many other locations.
The Hohenfels training area is also home to one of the largest populations of woodlarks, another endangered species that according to Buettner is close to extinct in the rest of Bavaria. The birds are dependent upon the naturally haphazard habitat that occurs in transition zones between open landscapes and forests, a habitat not found many places outside the training area where the line between farmland and woodland is kept strict and clean.
The yellow-bellied toad and the woodlark are just two examples; many habitats that endangered species rely on are rarely found off-post and thus Hohenfels offers these species a kind of oasis, said Buettner.
In all, the training area is home to more than 3,000 species of plants, animals and insects with close to 900 of those considered endangered or threatened. Scientists with the Environmental Division said it is believed some can now be found only in the Hohenfels training area.
The level of diversity in the training area is considered so significant that in 2001 large sections were designated as a European Flora Fauna Habitat.
"Up to 20 years ago we had a negative view of military training (as it affects the environment), but we now know that the training actually keeps the diversity," said Boehm. "It is a very important balance between military training and nature conservation."
To maintain that balance, Boehm and other members of the Environmental Division administer the garrison's natural resources program and ensure the area is in compliance with the reams of regulations that come along with the Flora Fauna Habitat designation.
Recently an Environmental Performance Assessment System team from Installation Management Command-Europe inspected Hohenfels' environmental program and listed the natural resources program as one of the division's top performers, noting its exceptional work managing biodiversity.
According to Boehm, effectively managing the natural environment means closely working with military training units.
"Our number one goal is to support the training and we work together to balance activities in the box with their environmental impact," said Boehm.
That means not only constantly monitoring the habitats and species on post, but also suggesting ways units can minimize the impact on them or finding ways to compensate for an impact that is unavoidable, said Boehm.
Capt. James Davis, Joint Multinational Readiness Center Troop Construction Program, coordinates engineering projects in the training area and said the Environmental Division is one of the first places he calls when he has a new project.
Davis said he works with the division to get feedback on how a project will impact the land and vegetation.
"I think the Army has learned over time that you have to take care of the training environment. It is important to look to the future when acting so when you look 20 years down the road it will still be viable," said Davis.
"In most cases environmental requirements and military requirements go together," said Buettner. "For example, the military wants to keep the grass low for visibility (so tanks can see things like sink holes or markers designating off-limits areas) and environmental wants to keep the grass low to help support habitats and species that need new growth vegetation."
"What we've found out is that protecting an area doesn't mean you put a fence up and don't use it, but keep it as it is used to protect the species," said Boehm. "They are connected and it is our job to find a way to fulfill both needs."