The Fort Benning Natural Resources Management Branch helps sustain, protect and enhance Maneuver Center of Excellence training missions while meeting natural resources stewardship and environmental compliance requirements.
The branch is led by James Parker, the natural resources manager responsible for bringing the team of 29 together, which includes Department of the Army and U.S. Department of Agriculture civilians, and contractors, and maximizing employment of the various skills and experience they share.
Why are we here?
Parker’s personal answer for this timeless question, or rather “why” he is a forester, is clear. He has a deep passion for the outdoors and nature, beginning early in life, and which led him to a career after a serendipitous high school class assignment.
“I was thrown into this class because there was nowhere else to put me,” says Parker. “I was taking the advanced prep courses, English, math, sciences, and I had an hour empty, so they put me in agribusiness, ag class, and that Fall we had a section on forestry. Ever since that class in 9th grade, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
The reason behind the need for Parker and his Natural Resource Management Branch team is also clear.
“The only reason my team and myself are here with a job is because of the Army. Everybody, including us in natural resources, are here to support training the best Soldiers in the world,” emphasizes Parker. “We [natural resources] do it in a way nobody thinks about, we’re here to sustain the training landscape.”
The Natural Resource Management Branch supports the military mission by working with trainers and other directorates and their staffs to ensure environmental law requirements are met while maximizing the training value the land provides to the 64,000 Soldiers who pass through Fort Benning annually.
“What we’re here to do is to make sure that our military training can occur, that is needed, and still meet the legal requirements of endangered and threatened species, and that’s our job, we make them work together,” says Parker. “That’s the future, sustaining the training mission by managing the training lands.”
Tool of the trade
One tool Parker and his team use to great affect is prescribed burning, that is burning of the land under planned conditions to create better conditions for both training and wildlife.
“Prescribed burning is a requirement for endangered species, even if it wasn’t a legal requirement I would do it because it’s the best ecosystem management tool I have,” says Parker. “The key is, if I do not burn this landscape under planned conditions, then [chance] will burn it for us. Prescribed burning keeps fuel levels low and we can easily suppress fires.”
Burning, which may seem to some as a tool of destruction, has led to a marked increase in the health of the land since more fully utilized as a management tool.
“Back in 1985 when we burned 10,000 acres or less we had 600 wildfires a year that burned 30,000 acres,” says Parker. “Now I have less than 100 wildfires a year that burn less than 3,000 acres. It would be even less acres than that but we let it burn when its not effecting training, safety, or smoke sensitive areas, because it’s actually a beneficial burn.”
Monitoring of the various species on the installation, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, confirms their numbers are growing; critical to this growth is the management of the habitat. One key to the branch’s success has been the unique way they are organize and train all team members on both forestry and conservation practices.
“It makes us so much better managers,” says Darrel Odom, Natural Resources Management Branch forester. Everybody is on board, everybody understands what we’re doing, everybody understands the biology of whatever they’re working with, the trees, the birds, gopher tortoises – we know it and we understand it.”
Consolidation of the Forestry and Wildlife Branches into one Natural Resources Management Branch was completed June 2017 and has allowed for a single, more effective focus on natural resources, ecosystem management, statutory and legal requirements, mission support, and emergency services (wildfire suppression).
“The big thing about us, natural resources, we have foresters, biologists, wildlife techs, forestry techs on staff; but we all work together,” says Parker. “Whether it’s a wildlife project, a forestry project, prescribed burning or wildfires, it’s one team.”
Mirroring the branch’s cross functional approach, they use an ecosystem management style that takes all species of animals and plants into account and continues to improve natural habitat for more than 66 animal and plant species known to occur on the installation which are State and/or Federally Threatened, Endangered, or Species of Concern – including thousands of gopher tortoises.
“That’s what we focus on, ecosystem management, focusing on the whole ecosystem, not just one little thing,” says Parker. “What makes all this work, is people working together.”