DoD Biodiversity Conservation Handbook
Chapters:Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11IntroductionCase StudiesAcknowledgements
Chapter 1: Biodiversity and the Military Mission; By  Bruce A. Stein, Ph.D

Set amidst the sandhills of North Carolina, Fort Bragg is one of the largest and busiest military installations in the world. The base, which is the home of the Army's airborne and special operations forces, trains more soldiers each year than any other military installation. The base plays a crucial role in enabling rapid deployments around the world, and soldiers from its 82nd Airborne Division must be ready to fight anyplace on the globe within eighteen hours. Military readiness is dependent on training, and training is a perishable commodity. As a result, Fort Bragg hosts extensive ground and aerial training exercises, and up to one hundred thousand parachutes a year blossom in the skies above the base. The success of these training maneuvers in meeting the military mission depends on the availability of adequate land and realistic fighting conditions.

Sharing the base's airspace and terrain with these parachutists are some of the last remaining red-cockaded woodpeckers (Picoides borealis), a federally protected endangered species. Efforts to protect this eight-inch tall, black and white-striped woodpecker had the potential for dramatically restricting the training opportunities at the base with consequences for the installation's capacity for maintaining military readiness. Instead, by taking an innovative approach to managing the base's natural ecosystems and to working across boundaries – geographic and institutional – Fort Bragg not only is helping ensure the survival of this endangered bird, but also is enhancing the availability of realistic training for the nation's troops. And in doing so, those involved have helped forge a new generation of approaches for conserving biodiversity on military lands.

Biodiversity: What is It?

Biodiversity, most simply put, is the variety of life – everything from genes, to species, to entire ecosystems. Shorthand for "biological diversity," the concept is most frequently applied to the array of plant and animal species that occur in a particular place, or region. The notion, however, captures not only the diversity of species in an area, but also the genetic variation within those species, as well as the organization of these species into biological communities and the variety of ecosystems across a landscape. Biodiversity conservation must take each of these levels into consideration.

As might be expected of a term that attempts to address the dazzling variation in life forms inhabiting the Earth, numerous definitions for biodiversity have been proffered, with each emphasizing one aspect or another of the concept. Perhaps the most widely used definition is contained in the international Convention on Biological Diversity, the international undertaking that grew out of the 1992 "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro. The convention defines biological diversity as:

. . . the variability among living organisms from all sources including, among other things, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems. (CBD 1992).

Other definitions include a focus on the processes necessary for sustaining this diversity. For instance, a report on biodiversity policy on U.S. federal lands (Keystone Center 1991), defined biodiversity as: "the variety of life and its processes; and it includes the variety of living organisms, the genetic differences among them, and the communities and ecosystems in which they occur."

Looking across the various definitions that have been offered, four key concepts emerge that address different aspects of biodiversity: variety, variability, multiple biological levels, and sustaining processes.

Alligator Lake
Wetlands such as Alligator Lake at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, are areas of high biological diversity protected on military lands. (Photo: DOD Legacy Program)

VARIETY. The number of different biological units of interest – for example, the number of distinct plants, animals, and microorganisms occurring within the bounds of Fort Bragg, or the number of different ecosystems found across the southeastern United States.

VARIABILITY. The differences both within and among those biological units – for example, the genetic variation within an individual colony of red-cockaded woodpeckers, or the distinctions found across populations of this woodpecker over its entire range.

MULTIPLE BIOLOGICAL LEVELS. The different levels of biological organization, including genetic, species, and ecosystem levels. (Some would add landscape levels to this list.) The levels of this hierarchy are occasionally more finely subdivided. sustaining processes. The processes that sustain the variety and variability of life forms at these different biological levels. This can include ecological processes, such as the role of fire in maintaining longleaf pine ecosystems, and evolutionary processes, such as the gene flow that results from the dispersal of young woodpeckers.

For purposes of this handbook, the following definition serves to encompass all four of these key concepts: Biodiversity is the variety and variability of life on Earth, from genes to ecosystems, together with the ecological and evolutionary processes that sustain it.

Military lands often exhibit high levels of biodiversity, sometimes in surprising places, such as at the Brandywine Radio Site of Andrews AFB, Maryland, located in a highly urbanized area near Washington D.C. (Photo: Douglas Ripley)


Constituting the overall fabric of life on Earth, biodiversity naturally provides people with many benefits, direct and indirect. While some of these can be represented in dollars and cents, others cannot – at least not yet. Nonetheless, there is an increasing realization that biodiversity benefits not only our material wellbeing and livelihoods, but also contributes to our security, health, and freedom of choices and actions. It is no coincidence that many of the regions around the world experiencing the greatest political and social unrest – and requiring the attention or intervention of U.S. military forces – are those where biodiversity and natural resources have been most severely depleted.

The value of biodiversity can be expressed from a variety of perspectives ranging from scientific and economic to ethical and aesthetic. One framework for understanding the value of biodiversity that has been gaining currency over the past few years is termed ecosystem services (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). Under this framework, biodiversity can be viewed as providing benefits in several areas:

Pacific Yew
Wetlands such as Alligator Lake at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, are areas of high biological diversity protected on military lands. (Photo: DoD Legacy Program)

PROVISIONING SERVICES include the role biodiversity plays in providing food, medicine, fiber, and fuel. Most of the world's food supply, for example, derives from just 20 species of plants, such as corn, rice, wheat, and potatoes. Our ability to ensure the continued production of these crops, and to provide food to a growing world population, depends largely on the periodic infusion of genetic material from wild relatives or locally adapted strains. Similarly, about a quarter of all prescription drugs are taken directly from plants or are chemically synthesized versions of plant substances (Eisner and Beiring 1994). Fungi and microorganisms have proven to be particularly potent sources for new drugs, and more than half of prescription drugs are modeled on natural compounds. Indeed, most breakthrough compounds, such as penicillin, originate from natural products. Our ability to continue developing lifesaving drugs is closely tied to the existence of a robust array of species.

REGULATING SERVICES include the role biodiversity plays in the modulation of diseases, climate, floods, and water purification. We now understand that the outbreak and regulation of many diseases is closely tied to changes in biodiversity and integrity of ecosystems. As an example, the spread of Lyme disease, a bacterial infection carried by ticks that, when untreated, causes a debilitating chronic condition, has been linked to changes in wildlife populations in the eastern United States. A combination of burgeoning deer populations and increasingly fragmented forests have combined to increase the risk of Lyme infection in many areas (LoGiudice et al. 2003). Disruption of such disease regulatory mechanisms is a particular concern given the potential risk posed to troops deployed in regions with deteriorating ecological conditions.

CULTURAL SERVICES include spiritual, aesthetic, recreation, and education values. Biological heritage is embedded deeply in the social fabric of our society, and communities historically have had close connections with the surrounding natural landscape. A personal relationship with biodiversity often takes place through outdoor recreation such as hunting, fishing, bird watching, or hiking. Many people value the mere existence of species, for instance free-ranging grizzly bears or great whales, even though they may never have the opportunity to see them in person. Religious communities of different faiths view biodiversity as a reflection of the hand of God, and many have embraced conservation as an expression of reverence for the works of creation. The disappearance of natural habitats and decreasing opportunities for outdoor recreation, however, is severing connections between people and the natural world. Together with other cultural shifts, the resulting phenomenon has been termed "nature-deficit disorder" and linked to a variety of social problems (Louv 2005).

The value of biodiversity is also enshrined within the U.S. legal system. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 constitutes the strongest expression of this respect and value for biodiversity, noting that ". . . species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its People." While the focus of the act is on preventing the loss of species, the emphasis on ecosystems contained in the act's purpose statement makes clear the connection to the broader concept of biodiversity:

to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species . . .

Proceed to Next Section: Fort Bragg and the Vanishing Longleaf Pine Ecosystem

© Copyright 2008. NatureServe.

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About This Chapter's Author
Bruce A. Stein Ph.D is Vice President and Chief Scientist, NatureServe.

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