FORT McCOY, Wis. -- The Natural Resources Branch (NRB) team at the Fort McCoy Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division was selected as the Army's "Best Natural Resources Conservation Team" during the fiscal year (FY) 2015 Secretary of the Army Environmental Awards.
The Army Environmental Awards program recognizes and rewards excellence in the development, management, and transferability of environmental programs that increase environmental quality, enhance the mission, and help make the Army sustainable.
"Winning this award exemplifies our commitment to supporting the Army mission while balancing environmental stewardship," said NRB Chief Mark McCarty. "It's great to be recognized for the superior level of work that we perform on a daily basis and continue to do in support of the nation's Army."
The team includes an endangered-species biologist, forester, forestry technician, fisheries biologist, wildlife biologist, and the NRB chief. The branch fosters stewardship of natural and cultural resources to support and sustain a realistic military-training environment, biological diversity, the integrity of sensitive or unique sites, and commercial and recreational opportunities, McCarty said.
The team has more than 175 years of combined natural-resources experience and has worked together for well over 20 years, McCarty said. "When you bring that much experience and cohesion to the table doing a job that you love, great things will happen.
"Over the years, we also have been able to develop a highly mature level of trust and respect with our partners outside the fence, primarily the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)," McCarty said.
"The installation and the Army benefit from this relationship through the sustainment of a realistic and productive operational training installation that has had no natural-resource-compliance violations and zero training days lost due to natural-resource-management issues."
In FY 2015, a large partnering effort involved Alderwood Dam on Fort McCoy's North Post. The project required NRB to work with the WDNR to remove an old dam and reroute a road that was within an active range's surface danger zone. The project included mitigation of 6.5 acres of wetlands and benefitted the military mission by improving traffic movement, adding a low-water crossing, and eliminating weight limitations that previously were levied on the aging dam that crossed the La Crosse River.
"We are still working on fine-tuning things at Alderwood, but that was an important project to improve the environment and safety of that training area," said Fisheries Biologist John Noble.
The NRB also partnered with the WDNR to complete a dam-renovation project on Squaw Lake and stream improvement below the dam. As a result, water quality below the dam improved enough to support cold-water fisheries. "We've initiated consultation with the WDNR and the Environmental Protection Agency for the removal of Squaw Creek from a federal impaired waters list," Noble said.
The installation also is home to three federal and 33 state-listed endangered wildlife species. Five additional species that live on Fort McCoy are being evaluated for possible listing under the Endangered Species Act, said Endangered Species Biologist Tim Wilder. The NRB collects survey and telemetry data regularly on these species to assist the USFWS in making a listing determination.
The NRB team also developed an interagency agreement to mitigate incidental take of the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly off the installation, Wilder said.
The agreement transfers funds to the USFWS, which partners with the WDNR to create or enhance habitat on WDNR property not yet meeting its conservation goals. Mitigating off installation has significantly reduced potential conflicts between military training and protecting endangered species.
"It's a process that hopefully will eventually help the butterfly become delisted from the endangered (species) list," Wilder said.
Fort McCoy also maintains a healthy population of deer throughout the installation's 60,000-plus acres of land. Wildlife Biologist Dave Beckmann said it's a team effort by the whole staff to ensure the population is well-managed and stays strong.
"We have to maintain a healthy deer population that must be self-sustaining with plenty of natural habitat," Beckmann said.
The population is maintained at a level that doesn't interfere with military training.
"We also have the hunters, who are our main tool to manage the deer population (and) who expect to have a healthy population of deer that they can hunt here. It's a balancing act, but it works well with this team," Beckmann said.
Forester James Kerkman and Forestry Technician Charles Mentzel manage more than 47,000 acres of timber lands on post. During FY 2015, they assisted in the effort to complete 15 timber sales covering 954 acres, generating approximately $200,000.
"We are always looking at how we do things, and we're always looking at the Army mission first," Mentzel said. "That's important in how we manage our (forestry) resources here because we want to be able to provide the best maneuver spaces available while at the same time maintaining healthy forested areas around the installation."
Kerkman and Mentzel also assisted with a project in early 2015 that removed trees to support Fort McCoy airfield operations. Trees were growing into the flight path and obscuring landing lights for approaching aircraft.
The NRB coordinated a commercial timber sale, followed by tree removal in a wetland area that could not be included in the sale, and then executed a public sale of firewood permits for leftover trees. Some removed trees were reutilized on the installation to support military engineer training.
"As a result, the goal of a safer runway was realized, avoiding costly contracting for timber removal, supporting military engineer training, and earning more than $25,000 for the Army Forestry Program," Kerkman said.
FY 2015 accomplishments were many, Wilder said, and it takes a strong team effort to complete the many important plans, programs, and processes the NRB has to do every day.
"We know in the natural resources world that everything is interconnected," Wilder said. "We know that if forestry does something, it might affect a water resource, or wildlife, or something else. Because everyone on this team realizes that, we all coordinate well together, and that's why we're successful."
Mentzel added, "We're not in this for recognition. We're in it to do what's right to support the mission and to do what's right for the resources at this installation, whether that is timber, fish, wildlife, or endangered species."
As an Army award winner, the NRB will represent the Army in Secretary of Defense Environmental Awards competition beginning in April. Winners of that competition will be announced in July.
For more information about the NRB, call 608-388-2252.