Within the confines of U.S. Air Force ranges there are things that exist nowhere else in the world.
Vast expanses of natural habitat containing unique plants and animals, archaeological sites and artifacts of Paleolithic Native Americans and cultures past, are contained in these, sometimes misunderstood, restricted spaces.
In fact, U.S. Air Force ranges support conservation efforts which strive to expand beyond man-made borders to increase numbers of threatened and endangered species to a healthy and sustainable population.
“I think the public has the perception that the training range is a bombing range in that we obliterate the entire range but that is a very large misconception,” said Anna Johnson, Nellis Air Force Base Natural Resource manager. “The target areas are a very small portion of the range and those target areas have remained the same for decades … going into the future the target areas are not supposed to change at all.”
These ranges, which are utilized for a wide variety of military training and or testing, try to strike a balance between responsible land stewardship and mission accomplishment.
According to Johnson, ranges require a lot of land area because of the distance and speed at which aircraft travel and for safety buffer zones during weapons employment.
Roads, targets and infrastructure account for less than 10 percent of the Nellis Test and Training Range landscape and the rest of the 2.9 million acres has been undeveloped and untouched. In fact, the only litter of note found on the range, according to Johnson, comes in the form of mylar balloons which travel extremely long distances.
The same can be said for ranges across the U.S. including Avon Park Air Force Range, which covers 106,000 acres, in Central Florida.
“Plain and simple, if we as the Air Force don’t take care of this property we’re going to lose the ability to use it,” said Mr. Buck MacLaughlin, APAFR range manager. “This is natural real estate and this is land we have been entrusted with to be able to do our training.”
That trust is granted by the American people and backed by U.S. federal regulations.
“The stewardship of the land is a responsibility that falls upon the Department of Defense and by proxy the Air Force, through the Sikes Act, where essentially we are mandated to partner with conservation organizations,” said Col. Chris Zuhkle, NTTR commander.
“In this case [with the NTTR] it’s the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nevada Department of Wildlife that make sure that we meet not only our mission needs but also that we do everything in our power to meet the conservation requirements and sustainment for those lands.”
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over 300 federally listed species live on Defense Department land. Range environmental management offices must always be mindful they’re falling within the guidelines of the endangered species act to keep the best interest of the mission and environment on their radar. Avon Park has 12 endangered species, which are spread throughout the entire range area. The large habitat poses some unique challenges when it comes to mission planning.
“If we are putting undue impact on these threatened and endangered species, and really not even just the threatened and endangered ones, all the natural species in Central Florida that make this range their home, if we’re not balancing the requirements between taking care of those species and doing the military mission the military mission is going to get curtailed,” said MacLaughlin.
“That costs money in terms of fuel, it costs money in terms of manpower and more importantly the units that need this training, those men and women who are going to go in harm’s way, they don’t get the ability to practice their craft if we’re not doing that other part.
According to Brent Bonner, APAFR environmental flight chief, the wildlife management piece takes a lot of moving parts to ensure mission accomplishment.
As part of the Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan species are constantly monitored so range operations knows their location and status, especially during critical times, such as nesting season for endangered birds, to help protect future generations of these rare creatures.
Aline Morrow, a USFWS biologist who works closely with the environmental flight, helps survey and track animals, such as the Florida Bonneted Bat, which some consider to be the most endangered bat in North America. She says the first natural roost of the bat was found on an impact area of Avon Park in 2014.
Once a roost is found, it’s marked and mission planners know to buffer a certain area around the roost so as not to disturb the bats.
“It’s just 110 percent support from everybody who’s out here,” exclaimed Morrow. “They’re [the Air Force] always asking us, ‘what are you doing?’ and they get just as excited as we do when, for example, just a couple weeks ago, we had a sighting of a Florida Panther and the commander sent an email out with the pictures to everybody. Now everyone has the picture as their background on their laptop … I never felt like someone from the Air Force sees us as a regulator, they see us as a partner. We’re there to help you guys [the Air Force] see your mission as much as ours.”
While most of the efforts focus on managing the landscapes inhabited by wildlife to ensure they are able to thrive, it’s just a piece of the bigger picture.
The Wild and Free Roaming Wild Horses and Burro Act of 1971 established requirements to manage these animals, which aided America’s expansion and growth, while also making sure there is an ecological balance.
Tabatha Romero, BLM Wild Horse and Burro specialist, knows first-hand how important management practices are.
She says people have an idealized version of how these horses are and the animals should just be left alone, but they don’t see the harm caused when the horses are overpopulated and they overgraze or run out of water and mothers have foals that can’t nurse because they can’t produce milk.
“With the NTTR it goes to show how sound our management practices can be,” said Romero. “When we are allowed to use the tools available to us and conduct comprehensive environmental management programs we have healthy horses on healthy ranges and that’s the ultimate goal of our program.”
Sound management practices are essential to ensuring the mission is accomplished, but with ranges providing pristine landscapes and safe havens for several endangered species it can sometimes become the only place these plants and animals live. In order to protect these species, and more effectively accomplish training, ranges have started looking at growing conservation efforts outside their physical boundaries.
According to MacLaughlin, it all started with the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program. This program works with willing landowners that border ranges, and partners with conservation organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, using federal money to purchase conservation easements.
“This is a real estate negotiation with a landowner that comes to the table and says ‘I want to protect my property’,” stressed MacLaughlin.
The REPI program presented potential for conservation efforts and education to expand in a big way, but sometimes there were unforeseen issues.
Agencies such as the Department of Interior or Department of Agriculture may be trying to accomplish the same thing on the same lands but due to existing laws, where federal money could not be used from one account to the other, the efforts may be halted.
This is where the Sentinel Landscape Program, which APAFR was declared an official Sentinel Landscape in 2016, came in that allowed multiple agencies to leverage each other’s programs and focus on combined efforts.
“It’s a direct sustainment of the mission,” said Bonner. “As we increase the species on our property and they’re decreased off property they become more valuable to the public … we want to make sure we don’t get in a situation where we are the only people with Red Cockaded Woodpeckers – that will impact our mission. So, we want to go outside the fence on those conservation efforts, protecting those species.”
While the natural resource management team is focused on current issues, facing threatened and endangered species, they are also looking at preserving the past. Many Air Force ranges are homes to thousands of years of cultural history which could potentially be lost forever if it weren’t housed in the safety of the range’s fences.
When a base or range requires building a new structure or beginning a new mission, it’s much more complicated than just planning for operations and making it happen.
Surveys and studies are done to ensure the space isn’t on ground that contains a culturally significant site, meaning it contains vital information such as relevant tools, or qualifying traces of history, that are eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
According to Kathy Couturier, APAFR cultural resource manager, she helps determine the Area of Potential Effect for a particular site and what the mission impacts will be on the site.
She then provides guidance or alternative solutions to operating around those sites and runs the plans up to the State Historic Preservation Office for review and approval. This process ensures that time, money, and resources are utilized in the best way possible to effectively accomplish the mission while still ensuring eligible sites remain protected.
Federal laws, regulations, and procedures, such as determining the APE, have been put in place to ensure these sites are preserved and treated with respect so as to not repeat the mistakes of the past when significant cultural resources were destroyed as highways and cities were built on top of potentially significant cultural sites.
Environmental teams across the nation’s ranges such as the NTTR, which has sites dating back 10,000 years and works closely with 17 Native American tribes, try to ensure that cultural ownership of the land is not lost.
“These tribes are very intact in their language, they still speak it fluently, they teach it in their schools to their children,” says Kish LaPierre, NAFB cultural resource manager. “They have amazing oral history so we work very closely with them and they give us information to help us protect the prehistoric and ethno historic sites.”
LaPierre says the conditions around the NTTR are perfect for the preservation of artifacts. There are several sites where, often times, there are baskets sitting still full of seeds and tools laying around as if the inhabitants just left and were planning to come back but they didn’t.
“We have almost 3 million acres of land and it is virtually untouched,” said LaPierre. “The NTTR has been blocked off from the public since 1940 so it’s a huge prehistoric time capsule – it’s like a living museum.”
Understanding and mitigating the impact of how land use can have long lasting and far-reaching effects is on the forefront of the Air Force’s environmental programs.
Range teams across the country take great care when executing their mission to make sure they are not only following federal laws but also taking a vested interest in the lands they have been granted the ability to use so the past and present are preserved for future generations.