Change is constant, particularly with environmental issues where natural forces and a changing climate bring evolving challenges around the globe to U.S. Army operations.
This reality has shaped the course for the U.S. Army Environmental Command since its inception 50 years ago. But even in the face of this, another constant that shaped the work of this critical unit is the collective commitment to its mission.
“We all take great pride in maintaining Army readiness to ensure we can defend and protect our nation’s interests and maintaining the environment and protecting ecosystems. Our key is striking that balance,” said Randy Cerar, division chief of operations, programs and planning at USAEC.
“We’re involved in a whole litany of issues, from environmental cleanup to compliance and policy implementation, education to historical and cultural artifacts preservation,” said Cerar, who has been with USAEC “off and on” for 32 years. “Very seldom do we do the same things today that we were doing even five years ago. We’re an eclectic mix of professionals that have an array, a matrix, of expertise.”
Paul Josephson, an environmental engineer at USAEC, said an increased awareness of the importance of environmental issues within Army leadership reflect a societal change and has helped drive changes across the entire Army. That has, in turn, brought ongoing change to USAEC. He cited the implementation of the Army Climate Strategy, released earlier this year, as a recent example of that.
“Our mission is a lot clearer now, or perhaps more established,” Josephson said. “Things are certainly better defined. We have really gotten to the point where attention to environmental issues is just a part of doing business. We’re playing an important role in that.”
Josephson said that this emphasis requires an increased use of technology effectively and on communicating regularly and effectively as well as creating the right kinds of human relationships. He also credited the ability of USAEC staff to react to shifting environmental conditions and regulations as a part of the command’s success.
“The people who really like and stay at USAEC are by nature problem solvers,” he said. “We’re doing work by trying a lot of different approaches. We’re incorporating into the core of the Army just how the Army deals with the environment in all it does.”
Cerar said one very notable example of the impact USAEC has had on the environment is the creation of the Army Compatible Use Buffer or ACUB program – a partnership program that pairs private landowners, Army installations and conservation organizations. The goal of this innovative program is to maintain necessary training space for Army installations while also lessening impacts on ecosystems and nearby communities.
Under ACUB, installations work with community partners to encumber off-post lands to establish a buffer zone that benefits the Army by enabling readiness while minimizing dust, noise and other potential impacts that may occur from military training and operations.
“ACUBs are a great example of what we do in action. ACUB has turned out to be a wonderful program with far-reaching impacts of maintaining the mission while still helping with natural resource protection and preservation of a number of endangered species. USAEC has had a huge impact through ACUB by maintaining good environmental stewardship and compliance, while keeping the mission going,” said Cerar
There are now more than 40 different ACUB programs across the country and together these programs have preserved more than 390,000 acres and invested more than $1 billion in conservation easements and land management – with 45% of that coming from outside partners.
Cerar said this kind of multi-faceted agreement requires that the Army mission and the environmental needs are balanced – something he says requires the ability to work through difficult issues to find the best possible solutions.
“There are synergies in the balance. What it takes to provide realistic training is often equally a great ecosystem,” Cerar said. “It’s no surprise that some of the best green spaces exist within Army training lands.”
“Striking the balance is the key to making it work,” he said.
Josephson added that in his more than 30 years with the command, he’s also seen a recent evolution among the staff, something he calls “invigorating.”
“We’re starting to get a lot of new people, with new ideas on the environment,” he said, adding that new staffers tend to come with greater computer skills and savvy. “As we look ahead, the tools we have can provide greater data and analysis than ever. The power of technology to manage compliance and cleanup data and to communicate and to collaborate is enormous. People are really excited about exploring those opportunities.”
Both Cerar and Josephson cited the work environment at USAEC as a constant from their decades with the command.
“In my time here, it has been a great environment both in and outside of work, with things like softball and basketball and social activities,” Cerar said. “It really has been a family type of approach, and we’ve had good, memorable times together.”