At 241,126 acres, the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk, a premier U.S. Army training center, makes up about 1% of the land area of its home state of Louisiana.
In this space, however, the installation maintains an archaeological inventory that encompasses approximately 20% of all recorded sites in the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office database. Fort Polk alone has 4,135 sites with 180 sites eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
“The cultural resources management team supports the training mission by preserving the past in order to secure the installation’s future,” said Bradley Laffitte, installation archaeologist. “The challenges we’ve faced have led us to refocus our energies, create innovative outreach methods to engage and increase communications with stakeholders and partners.”
In the 1940s, then Camp Polk was established through eminent domain, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of families. The CRM team preserves and protects the historic resources from that time, through a comprehensive management approach that uses customized data collection methods, emerging technology and proactive cultural awareness outreach involving 10 federally recognized tribes, nearby universities, and local, state and federal agencies.
Managing that responsibility has come with additional challenges brought on by weather-related disasters. Major weather events that tested the installation over the last few years include a 2019 tornado, two hurricanes in 2020 (including Laura, a category 4 major storm) and winter storm Uri in 2021 – making the preservation of sites and materials even more challenging.
Hurricane Laura damaged 14 of the 23 historic cemeteries managed by the installation. Hurricane Delta and winter storm Uri further damaged the cemeteries by destroying already compromised trees and branches. The total damage to historic cemeteries included more than 300 linear feet of fence, one brick gate and archway, eight grave markers, more than 100 uprooted trees, dozens of hazardous trees, and a variety of erosion issues. The impacts resulted in an estimated $750,000 in repair costs.
In the wake of each disaster, CRM staff deployed to the affected regions of the installation to record the most severely impacted areas and map damage to sites, structures and cemeteries. The damages included uprooted trees that left holes up to 12 feet wide and drove tree limbs up to four feet deep into the ground at archaeological sites and cemeteries.
U.S. Forest Service-permitted training land sustained the most severe damage. CRM staff brought chainsaws to the field for clearing paths into archaeological sites. The team also inspected root balls for artifacts. Fort Polk and the Forest Service used collected data to guide restoration and management activities in consultation with the SHPO, Native American tribes, Fort Polk game enforcement, and other stakeholders and partners.
One notable and delicate operation involved team members restoring a grave at Fullerton East Cemetery after hurricane Laura uprooted a tree and exposed the burial site. Two more trees fell on top of the burial, knocking the headstone loose from its base. The CRM crew removed the root ball and replaced it with dirt, taking care not to disturb any human remains.
In 2021, Folk Polk celebrated 80 years of training soldiers. Brig. Gen. David S. Doyle, JRTC and Fort Polk commanding general was the speaker at the anniversary celebration. Doyle said Fort Polk soldiers were proud to serve at an installation with such a rich history. It is the CRM team whose mission is to preserve and protect that history.