WASHINGTON, July 22, 2013 – While the Defense Department is battling to maintain the nation’s military readiness in an austere budget climate, its conservation efforts in communities across the country are quietly flourishing, environmental experts told a national security audience recently.
John Conger, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, and James G. Van Ness, DOD’s acting deputy general counsel for environment and installations, participated in a July 19 panel discussion at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colo.
Conger assured the audience that funding for the Pentagon’s environmental initiatives is largely shielded, and the Pentagon has gained ground in efforts from endangered species rehabilitation to site cleanup programs.
Conger noted the department manages nearly 30 million acres of land and roughly a half million buildings in the United States. Many of the training acres on military installations have served as refuges for threatened and endangered species, he noted, but conservation efforts now are moving outside the gates.
“The Defense Department has a dedication to the environment that is wider in scope than a lot of people are familiar with. … We spend $4 billion a year on our environmental programs,” he said. Conger added that military installations are home to 420 federally listed threatened or endangered species and 523 at-risk species. Roughly 10 of the former and 75 of the latter are found only on DOD property, he added.
Van Ness explained that as pressures build to increase DOD’s use of its available training space, the department is working harder to build viable habitats for those species in communities around military installations.
He said department environmental experts have hit on the idea of working with surrounding communities and states, and in some cases other federal agencies, to contribute habitat-building efforts near military installations in return for the relaxing of some standards on the installations. These private lands initiatives, Van Ness said, have been remarkably successful.
“We’ve had 41 transactions and more than 14,000 acres protected” under the program at Fort Bragg, N.C., alone, he said. Fort Bragg, home to the red-cockaded woodpecker as well as the Army’s 18th Airborne Corps and other major units, has benefited from the partnership in increased use of training lands, Van Ness noted. “Fish and Wildlife Service has lifted some of the restrictions that were most onerous,” he added.
As similar programs have spread across the nation, he noted, DOD now is involved in habitat rehabilitation projects at about 60 bases in 24 states.
Partner agencies have matched DOD in funding this program, he noted.
“These are lands that are important to them, too,” Van Ness said. “It meets their needs and their interests.”
Conger noted the department also has improved its site cleanup record dramatically in recent years. By 2018, the department will have finished cleaning up 90 percent of the environmental sites it has identified, he said, and will have completed 95 percent by 2021.
While a few sites will require longer-term solutions, Conger said, “I’m proud of our cleanup program and I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”