As home to more than 1.2 million training Soldiers each year, and the location of 19 natural plant communities containing five federally endangered species and dozens of rare species, the Integrated Training Area Management team at Fort Liberty has a big assignment.
“We deal with everything from new range proposals, maneuver trail development, and next generation weapons systems,” said Darin Burns, ITAM coordinator. “We must meet that requirement and find how it best fits on the landscape with all the environmental requirements we have here at Fort Liberty. It is super challenging.”
“Every type of training activity on Fort Liberty has to take into account the environmental aspects, such as plants, animals, water quality, erosion, and cultural resources,” continued Burns. “It is absolutely how we do things while ensuring we are being good stewards of the training environment. We do whatever it takes to get the job done and do it responsibly.”
One of the ways Burns and his team stay on top of the challenge is to integrate their planning and work across units and form a truly collaborative approach. Burns said the formation of a Training Lands Working Group has been key to implementing this strategic approach to integrated land management.
“Before, when we had an issue, we’d work with the environmental branch by going directly to the botanist, or the endangered species biologist, whoever seemed like the right person,” said Burns. “Now, our working group has representatives from training, endangered species, wildlife, botany, cultural resources, forestry, and water that interact in a monthly format where everybody briefs everyone to promote training area management and integration. It addresses the two pillars – environmental and training. Everything is transparent. It’s a huge improvement over how we had done things before.”
The integrated approach has led to simple but very effective changes in land management not only benefiting the training mission, but also protects and maintains the imperiled longleaf pine ecosystem and the sensitive resources found on the installation.
One change implemented after discussions with the working group was how the ITAM team and the engineers build maneuver trails. Prior to these discussions, the team used the standard crowned road with drainage ditches on the side – the type of road construction that is used throughout the nation.
However, due to Fort Liberty’s sandy and easily erodible soil, this type of construction was causing erosion problems degrading the water quality in streams. In addition, the erosion was creating maintenance issues due to the need to continually bolster the ditches to prevent erosion.
Now the team builds trails to grade promoting sheet flow, thereby significantly reducing the erosion problems and eliminating the ditches.
“We’re much more focused on building sustainability into our projects,” explained Burns. “We’ve come to realize it is better to overdesign and invest heavily up front and not create ongoing heavy maintenance requirements that aren’t sustainable.”
Another land management process improvement has been the incorporation of best practices from other installations.
Burns, a former paratrooper, said the issue of “rotor wash” or sand erosion caused by helicopters, was not only environmentally challenging, but difficult on Soldiers training.
“When I was active duty back in the late 80s and used to try to hook up a howitzer to a chinook for air mobility operations, the wind-blown sand would just blister you,” he said. “The rotor wash creates a bowl-shaped indentation. To counter the problem, we took an idea from Fort Rucker now Fort Novosel (the primary helicopter training installation) and filled the indentations with soil, planted grass and then put stones on top. It dramatically reduces the rotor wash and keeps dusty conditions to a minimum.”
Fort Liberty is also known for its ongoing work to preserve the federally endangered Red Cockaded Woodpecker. A lot of the natural resource land management work is focused primarily on protecting and preserving the habitat for the birds, which require mature, open pine forests for foraging.
“A big part of the training lands management actions focuses on ecosystem sustainment,” explained Burns. “Prescribed fire is our best management tool in promoting a thick and lush groundcover, sparse midstory and dominant longleaf pine overstory.”
Each year the Forestry Branch burns a third of the installation to mimic the historical disturbance regime. The ITAM team is given an opportunity to weigh in on the controlled burn plan annually and look at ways fire could benefit training.
He said working with the environmental teams is critical to the overall success of the installation and is a huge consideration in much of what the team does.
“A big, important, key ingredient to the work we do is maintaining a really close relationship with the environmental team,” he said. “We’ve always looked to extend that olive branch, and to see how we can meet somewhere right in the middle - where we can work to provide for training readiness while protecting the environment and find that sweet spot where our management is mutually beneficial.”