Army protects Marshall Islands' unique natural resources

By Thomas Milligan (USAEC)June 4, 2024

Nest monitoring
1 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Mr. Patrick Chauvey of the U.S. Army Environmental Command documents fresh Green Sea-turtle nesting activities on a small, remote beach on Kwajalein Island Pacific Ocean Shore in July 2022. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Whale sample
2 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – A veterinarian from the Kwajalein clinic secured a scratch tissue sample from a whale in the Kwajalein Lagoon. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Environmental support at US Army Garrison Kwajalein
3 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – The Kwajalein team including: Mr. Patrick Chauvey, U.S. Army Environmental Command, Environmental Support Manager, Forward; U.S. Army Garrison, Kwajalein Atoll; Mr. Gus Aljure, LOGCAP V, Kwajalein Task Order; Environmental Lead; Mr. Aaron Brownell, LOGCAP V, Kwajalein Task Order, Environmental Engineer; and Mr. Michael Malone, RGNext Contractor, Environmental Lead, in front of the largest native Kamani tree on Kwajalein, near the Marshallese Cultural Center. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Environmental awareness training
4 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Mr. Aaron Brownell, LOGCAP V, Environmental Engineer, provides monthly environmental awareness training on Kwajalein. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Coral survey
5 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Mr. David Delaney of the National Marine Fisheries Service conducts undersea survey of coral beds near the USAG-KA island of Ennugaret in September 2023.. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Coral inventory
6 / 6 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Mr. Gus Aljure, LOGCAP V Environmental Lead, discusses ongoing coral inventory activities in the Kwajalein Harbor with Dr. Steve Kolinski of the National Marine Fisheries Service in September 2023. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

A former World War II battleground and longtime military installation, U.S. Army Garrison Kwajalein Atoll’s tropical environment, proximity to the sea and sensitive sea life along with its remoteness from population centers make it unique among natural resource programs.

“Responsible stewardship of this truly one-of-a-kind, Pacific terrain is a USAG-KA priority,” said Col. Drew Morgan, USAG-KA garrison commander. “This installation is important to both the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the U.S. Together we proactively protect the geography, history and ecology of this special place while conducting our strategically vital mission for the nation.”

The Kwajalein Atoll, in Micronesia within the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), is 700 miles north of the equator and more than 2,000 miles southwest of Honolulu. Although USAG-KA is one of the smallest Department of Defense installations, the Kwajalein Atoll’s 1,100 square mile lagoon makes it one of the largest atolls in the world.

“Kwajalein Atoll natural resources are dominated by lagoon and ocean-based ecosystems. Coral reefs, along with onshore terrestrial habitat offer a variety of unique plant and animal species that require special regulatory consideration,” said Patrick Chauvey, a U.S. Army Environmental Command environmental support manager supporting USAG-KA on location. “The coral reef -- critical habitat for a number of species -- is sensitive to pollution from man-made activities such as sewage discharge, sediment accumulation, and dredging and filling.”

In the Fall of 2022, the Kwajalein environmental team identified a rare Deraniyagala’s beak whale that had taken refuge at the southern end of the atoll lagoon, just offshore from USAG-KA. The team, working with federal agencies and experts from the University of Hawaii, helped determining its species, and developed and implemented appropriate measures to protect the whale.

“The most spectacular aspect was that this particular species had never before been witnessed alive, but only observed through deceased carcasses,” said Chauvey. “The USAG-KA team produced the first photographic evidence of this rare species. The University of Hawaii team in preparing a scientific publication, with accompanying press releases, to share this information worldwide.”

The environmental team, working under an agreement with the RMI, pays special attention to several animal and plant species including 24 marine mammal species, five sea turtle species, 64 coral species, six marine mollusk species, one marine sponge species, eight fish species and one bird species. Each of these species are currently designated as threatened or endangered or are proposed for that designation as part of the environmental agreement with RMI.

In addition, the USAG-KA Environmental Standards (UES) also calls for coordination and conservation actions for 59 bird species, five coral species, five mollusk species, four fish, one crustacean species and one plant species.

“We operate on foreign land and waters where the environmental standards for all U.S. Government activities are governed by agreements designed to provide for the public health and safety and environmental protection tailored specifically to the unique environment,” said Chauvey.

The atoll has a long history of colonization, dating back centuries and today the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command are the primary tenants at the installation.

“The Marshall Islands have been home to 2,000 years of human settlement,” said Chauvey, noting that Western influence first came to the area as early as 1494, but the Atoll itself was “discovered” formally by the British in 1804. The atoll and population were colonized by Germany from 1885 until 1914, followed by Japanese rule.

“In January 1944 during World War II, Kwajalein and Roi-Namur Islands in the atoll were the sites of fierce combat between Japanese and U.S. Forces,” Chauvey said. “Days of aerial bombing, naval and land-artillery shelling and intense ground fighting left both islands destroyed and almost devoid of live vegetation.”

Since World War II, portions of Kwajalein Atoll have been used by the U.S. Government, for a variety of purposes including a refueling and communications base, then a support facility for testing of nuclear weapons and later for testing ballistic missiles, Chauvey said.

As part of managing the natural resources at the installation, the environmental team responded to a new challenge when it identified two green sea-turtle nesting areas near an installation runway construction project. Turtle nesting has not been regularly observed on the island of Kwajalein, but seeing these nests, and knowing the proximity to the runway could pose problems, the team installed a temporary fence along the beach area and had lights near the site relocated away from the ocean to assist hatchlings to find their way to the water. The team is planning to install a permanent barrier made of recycled concrete.

The team also helps to maintain the Eniwetak Conservation Area (ECA), a 15-acre USAG-KA island established in 2005 to offset anticipated loss of sea-turtle and bird nesting habitat from ballistic missile flight tests.

“Since 2021, we have reviewed and analyzed approximately 24 ECA reports, and these reports show that the bird population is healthy, the nesting trends are positive and trespassing is on the decline,” said Chauvey.

The coral reefs and ocean environment, Chauvey said, remain a primary conservation focus.

“Our responsibility area includes coral reefs, the mid-atoll corridor and ocean waters extending 12 nautical miles where rare, threatened and endangered terrestrial and marine species are present, including sea turtles, giant clams and seagrasses,” Chauvey said.