FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Those who have traveled on state Route 3A in recent months may have noticed a rather significant change in the landscape. During the winter, Fort Drum contracted out a large-scale timber harvest operation to remove all woody stemmed vegetation in the 350-acre Training Area 7.
The clearing operation is part of an effort to restore vital sand-plains grasslands and provide habitat for several species that make their home in such ecosystems, said Fort Drum Natural Resources Branch Chief Jason Wagner.
"They're a rare and significant habitat type in the state of New York," Wagner said. "There's a large area on Fort Drum -- from the airfield all the way out to Fargo, along Route 3A -- (that) is that sand-plains kind of habitat."
Wagner explained that when then-Pine Camp expanded in the 1940s, this area was mostly composed of open, sandy fields with short grasses, lichen and other small plant species. Since the Army acquired the property and it was no longer used as farm land, trees and larger plants have begun to take over the grassland.
In fact, since the 1940s, the amount of forested land within the confines of Fort Drum has more than tripled -- from 25,000 acres to more than 75,000.
"Over the years, it's become more forested," Wagner said. "The trees have encroached into that grassland habitat … so this was a project to restore some of that."
"We knew that we didn't want to let it go all the way to forest and lose that habitat, and it was starting to get patchy with the trees and the shrubs. So, we went in and cleaned out all those patches -- opened it right back up -- and now we have a big, core open area that's important for those grassland species."
"If there are too many trees and shrubs and it's not open, then that's a place for predators to perch and pick off these songbirds," he added.
The site that was chosen for this restoration project was ideal for a few reasons, Wagner said. The first was that it was one of the most sparsely forested areas of sand-plains grassland on the range, meaning fewer trees needed to be cut.
Another reason this location was ideal was its close proximity to the roadway and to the edge of the Fort Drum training area.
"If we work on the edges of post, it also de-conflicts mission constraints," Wagner said. "There are a number of things that the mission can't do right up to the edge of the post. Habitat management isn't one of them."
Natural Resources staff members hope that opening the area back up will encourage growth in some of the species that make their home in grassland habitats.
"They're home to such birds as upland sandpipers (and) grass-hopper sparrows, which are all migratory birds," he said.
The upland sandpiper has recently been listed as a threatened species in New York state. Reestablishing grasslands provides a place for this species to grow and flourish, but Wagner explained that this project also ensures the continuation of Fort Drum's mission -- training Soldiers.
"One of the most important things we do here in Natural Resources for the mission is to make sure that we are de-conflicting wildlife, endangered species and migratory bird treaty acts from the mission," he said.
"My team spends a lot of time proactively planning habitat management strategies so that we don't end up getting species listed in the endangered species act," he said. "It's very critical to the Army to keep productive, healthy ecosystems to avoid complications that would result in mission stoppage."
The vast majority of the restoration thus far has involved a large timber-clearing operation. This clearing was conducted during the winter so that it did not adversely impact migratory bird species, but also because the snow cover provided protection for the native grass species underneath.
The next phase of the project will involve removing re-growth of trees and invasive grasses and re-seeding with a customized native grass seed mix.
"We have some invasive species that are coming up in there that are threatening the grass," he said.
Wagner said he is confident that within the next two to three years, the grassland habitat will be well on its way to being reestablished.
"In essence, we're pretty close, because out of the 350 acres (affected in the project), only 90 acres (were) truly forested," he said.