FORT RUCKER, Ala. (April 5, 2012) -- Fort Rucker's natural resources are vast, from its ecosystems to its forests, and the installation is doing what it can to make sure that these resources are available for future generations to use and enjoy.

"We've got many diverse ecosystems on Fort Rucker," said Doug Watkins, chief of the Natural Resources Branch of the Directorate of Public Works. "Whether it be forestry, wildlife or various habitats … first and foremost is protecting those ecosystems and making them available for training."

Supporting the training of Soldiers is the No. 1 objective, he said. It's the job of the Natural Resources Branch to protect and minimize the impact to the ecosystems -- restore them, maintain them and make sure that the natural resources are available to be utilized for the training mission.

Fort Rucker harvests 600 to 800 acres of timber a year and minimizes the amount of clear-cut areas that are done because it isn't conducive with the training mission, said Watkins.

"We now have [Survival, Evade, Resistance, Escape] training," he said. "In years past, we've been only Aviation training and … there was not a lot of concern about the ground training. With our forestry program, we're trying to tailor and craft this forestry habitat to meet the needs of the SERE training," and maintain the ecosystems on the installation in the process.

The branch also has a very aggressive program to re-establish the longleaf pine tree, which was the native habitat of the Fort Rucker area, according to Watkins.

"Over time, [Fort Rucker] has developed into a habitat of mixed pine and we're trying to restore areas back to their native longleaf pines," he said. "We're not a pulp wood industry here, profit is not our main objective. We want to sustain the resources for future production and convert slowly back to the native habitat."

One of the main reasons for restoring areas back to their native habitat is to help preserve some of the species in the area that require the native habitat in order to thrive, said Watkins.

"We've got the gopher tortoise here, which is a protected wildlife species," he said. "A lot of our forestry programs are tailored to support the protection and sustainment of the gopher tortoise."

The tortoise is Fort Rucker's highest profile protected wildlife species, according to Danny Spillers, installation wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources Branch of DPW.

"It's a species that has been proposed for listing as a threatened species under the endangered species act," he said, "and it looks like in the next few years it might happen."

The tortoises need open longleaf forests that are thinned and burned regularly and have lots of herbaceous vegetation on ground, said the biologist.

Along with the gopher tortoise, Spillers said Fort Rucker is also home to nesting bald eagles, which are no longer on the endangered species list but are still protected, and some mussels that were added to the endangered species list.

"[The mussels'] habitat includes Fort Rucker and surrounding areas, with the surrounding areas considered critical," he said. "Due to management and clean water act modifications that Fort Rucker does to ensure the reduction in siltation and turbidity in the streams, [the installation] is not included in the critical habitat, but we're surrounded by it. It's important for us to maintain those programs that keep the water in good shape and not to further pollute it when it goes off post."

Aquatic programs such as the restoration and restocking of installation's lakes and ponds are also among the responsibilities of the Natural Resources Branch, said Watkins.

The lakes and ponds are sometimes drained in order to perform maintenance, such as having to replace drainpipes or dredging out overgrown vegetation and sediment, said Spillers.

Parcours Lake is currently closed due to such a renovation, he said. Over time, sediment has washed into the lake, and the shallow areas have filled in allowing vegetation to establish and encroach on the lake, which has choked up those areas.

"We basically had to drain the lake, get the fish out and deepen the shoreline," said the biologist. "We try to maintain [the shoreline] at three feet deep so that vegetation can't get established."

When the desired result in the lake's shoreline is established, the lake is then refilled and restocked with fish and proper vegetation, he said, adding that the lake will remain closed for a period of time to allow the population of the fish to get re-established before people are able to fish in the lake.

The natural resources available on Fort Rucker also provide recreational activities for the surrounding communities in terms of hunting, fishing, trail riding and other outdoor activities, said Spillers, and part of the responsibility of the natural resources branch is to make sure that these resources are available for people to enjoy.

"Hunting is one of the main recreational activities in the area," said Watkins. "Right now we have a very high population of predator coyotes and wild hogs."

Over time, the predators have reduced the population of the white-tailed deer "to the point where we feel that we need to take action," he said.

"One of our major efforts … is to begin to expend a lot of energy and effort toward management of these predatory animals to reduce their numbers with the objective being to restore the white-tailed deer population to acceptable levels," Watkins explained.

Maintaining the habitats and natural resources along with good stewardship is the driving force behind the programs that the natural resources branch has in place, he said.

"We like to lead the pack by example," said Watkins. "We need to be good stewards."

Page last updated Fri April 6th, 2012 at 18:20