DoD Biodiversity Conservation Handbook
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Chapter 1: Biodiversity and the Military Mission; By  Bruce A. Stein, Ph.D

Fort Bragg and the Vanishing Longleaf Pine Ecosystem

Longleaf Pine

Tiger Salamander
Fort Bragg is home to a remarkable array of rare plants and animals, including carnivorous pitcher plants (top) and the tiger salamander (above). (Photos courtesy of Fort Bragg)

In the spring of 1773 William Bartram, a naturalist from Philadelphia, traveled across the Southeast and described ". . . a vast forest of the most stately pine trees that can be imagined . . . " At that time longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) was the dominant tree across much of the Southeast, and the ecosystem that bears its name covered on the order of ninety million acres. Over time, logging, land development, and other factors destroyed most of these old growth pine forests. Currently, less than two million acres of this unique habitat still exist, representing a 97 percent decline, and one of the most drastic reductions of any major natural ecosystem across the United States.

As the longleaf pine forests declined, so too did many of the species dependent on these habitats. Although some species are quite adaptable and able to survive equally well in one type of forest over another, others have highly specific requirements that tie them tightly to a particular habitat. Such is the case with the red-cockaded woodpecker. This species is the only woodpecker that creates cavities in live rather than dead trees, and these roosting and nesting cavities are located primarily in longleaf pines at least eighty years old. The bird's popular name refers to the ribbon-like patch sometimes visible on the heads of males, along with a white cheek patch and black and white barred back. The woodpecker is territorial and non-migratory; birds have an unusual social structure, commonly living in groups that include a breeding pair and as many as four "helpers," offspring from earlier years, who assist in incubating, brooding, and feeding. The woodpeckers live for more than 20 years in cavities they excavate in mature trees; the collection of cavity trees used by a group of woodpeckers is known as a "cluster."1

In 1918, when Fort Bragg was created, longleaf pine was still widespread across the Southeast, and the area of North Carolina where the base was established was considered a remote and desolate region. Much has changed since that time, and as longleaf pine forests disappeared across most of their former range, the relative importance of remaining reservoirs of this habitat, such as Fort Bragg, increased. Of Fort Bragg's 161,000 acres, more than half – about 89,000 acres – are covered with longleaf pine, representing one of the last strongholds for this disappearing ecosystem. The base's old-growth longleaf pine forests are rich in biodiversity, harboring a fairly large number of other rare or endangered species beyond the red-cockaded woodpecker. But while the woodpecker, like the pines themselves, formerly occupied a vast area, many of these other rare species are highly localized and were never found outside of the Sandhills region.

Longleaf Pine
An open stand of majestic longleaf pine forest with wiregrass understory at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Less than three percent of this forest type still exists across the Southeast. (Photo courtesy of Fort Bragg)


Natural forests on the installation are important for providing a realistic training environment, and by maintaining the forest base managers felt they were doing a good job of sustaining the red-cockaded woodpeckers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which co-administers the Endangered Species Act, felt otherwise and in 1990 issued a "jeopardy opinion."2 That regulatory opinion maintained that training activities on the base were having a detrimental impact on the long-term survival of the woodpeckers. As a result of this Fish and Wildlife Service order, a number of training restrictions were required to buffer the woodpeckers from training activities thought to be harmful to them. This resulted in the closure of some shooting ranges, and redesign of other training sites. These restrictions were codified in management guidelines adopted in 1994.

Such extensive restrictions on training activities at Fort Bragg and other Southeastern military installations provoked high-level consternation, including calls from some for congressional action. In an effort to defuse the situation, the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of the Interior directed their respective staffs to work together and devise a strategy that would both support recovery of the woodpecker consistent with the Endangered Species Act and enable the Army to continue training its troops. A joint Department of Defense/Fish and Wildlife Service team was assembled under the leadership of an experienced infantry officer and charged with tackling the issue.

What is needed to sustain and increase red-cockaded woodpecker numbers was already fairly well known to wildlife biologists, and includes a combination of proactive habitat management and creation of artificial nesting cavities. While a principle focus of the response to the jeopardy opinion was restrictions on training activities, the team recognized that a lack of proactive habitat management was probably the greatest factor limiting the bird's survival and recovery. By its regulatory nature, however, the Endangered Species Act is better suited to limiting potentially harmful activities than promoting beneficial ones, and the team was challenged to create a strategy that balanced these approaches.

Fortunately, the type of open understory forest habitat best suited for the woodpecker was also considered by military trainers to be an ideal cover type for providing realistic training experiences. This concordance in habitat preferences opened up a host of opportunities for meeting mutual goals. And fire was key to maintaining suitable conditions for both.

Healthy longleaf pine forests depend on frequent but low-intensity fires. Under natural conditions these forests experienced lightning fires every two to five years. These fires were essential for maintaining the pine forest's characteristic wiregrass groundcover and for preventing scrub oaks and other hardwoods from replacing the pines. The many unusual plants and animals restricted to the Sandhills region evolved with these frequent fires, and most depend on them for their long-term health. As a result, prescribed burns are one of the key management tools for maintaining and restoring Fort Bragg's natural ecosystems, benefiting not only the woodpecker, but also a host of other rare species.

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

Sign Designating Habitat Zone
Top: A young red-cockaded woodpecker peers out of an artificial nest cavity at Avon Park Air Force Range, Florida. Innovative management strategies, such as installing these cavities in young pine trees, are aiding the recovery of this endangered species. (Photo: Arlene Ripley).
Bottom: A sign designating red-cockaded woodpecker habitat zone, Camp Blanding, Florida. (Photo: Douglas Ripley)


The DOD/USFWS team worked together to devise a novel strategy for ways in which Fort Bragg and other Southeastern military bases could contribute to regional recovery goals for the red-cockaded woodpecker. This approach started with understanding the amount of suitable or potentially suitable habitat on the installation, together with an identification of areas considered mission critical from a military training perspective. A specific and quantifiable "Mission Compatible Goal" would then be derived from these acreages, along with a more ambitious "Regional Recovery Goal," which could take into account woodpecker clusters on adjacent lands. Proactive habitat management such as prescribed burns would be applied to all suitable or potentially suitable habitat, and artificial cavities created to help expand the number of woodpecker clusters that existed, and increase the bird's population numbers.

A novel aspect of this strategy was its distinction between two types of new recruitment clusters resulting from the artificial cavities.3 One cluster type (termed "Primary") would contribute to a base's "Mission Compatible Goal" and be subject to the same restrictions on military training as naturally occurring woodpeckers. The second type (termed "Supplemental") would contribute towards the more expansive regional recovery goal, but would not be subject to training restrictions. The team felt that this approach would encourage a base to produce more than the minimum number of woodpeckers, without being penalized for doing so in terms of training restrictions. Secondly, the approach provided an ideal opportunity for comparing the impact training activities actually have on the bird's reproductive success as a means for evaluating the efficacy of training restrictions in place. Rigorously testing the woodpecker's response to different training-related activities would enable managers to institute a strong adaptive management approach to the plan's implementation.

New management guidelines based on this approach were adopted by the Army in 1996, and Fort Bragg was the first installation to implement an Endangered Species Management Plan (ESMP) under those guidelines. This set the stage for a relaxation in training restrictions at the base.

With a growing number of red-cockaded woodpeckers using the base, the new management approach has proven to be quite successful. In recent years the population of woodpeckers at Fort Bragg has been growing, and in 2006 the population had topped 350 clusters, a recovery goal that had not been expected for another five years. Production of woodpeckers on the base has even been sufficient to enable export of birds to other properties to help in the overall recovery effort.

Prescribed Burning

Urban Encroachment
Top: Prescribed burning is an effective management tool for restoring pine habitats in southeastern states. (Photo courtesy of Fort Bragg)
Bottom: New housing encroaching on the boundaries of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, creating potential conflicts for wildlife management and military training. (Photo courtesy of Fort Bragg)


Even as Fort Bragg worked to reconcile red-cockaded woodpecker conservation and military training needs, it became apparent that a major threat to both loomed on the other side of the base fence. Rapid development of lands adjacent to the base was eliminating wildlife habitat and putting pressures on the base's lands. And the human occupants of the new developments increasingly were complaining about the noise and smoke associated with military training exercises.

These encroachment pressures demanded "outside the gate" thinking.4 Historically, most military posts were established in remote areas where potential conflicts between local communities and military activities would be minimized. As many of these areas have become more densely populated, many active bases are in danger of becoming islands in an ocean of private development, with consequences that can jeopardize the installation's primary missions. By the mid-1990s rapid urban development outside Fort Bragg was becoming increasingly worrisome to installation officials. Although housing and other developments being approved could have major impacts on the Army's ability to carry out maneuvers and other training activities, the Fort had no jurisdiction over land use planning adjacent to the base. And as these adjacent lands were developed, the relative importance of Fort Bragg's lands for sustaining the red-cockaded woodpecker only increased.

Military planners recognized that a buffer of undeveloped land was needed surrounding the base both to meet red-cockaded woodpecker recovery goals, and for the training mission to be sustainable over the long term. At the time, however, there were few options available for the creation of such a protected buffer, and the Army had neither the authority nor the funds to purchase adjacent private lands for this purpose. Against this backdrop, officials at Fort Bragg began working with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a non-profit organization specializing in private land protection that had a history of working with the Department of Defense, to accomplish broader biodiversity conservation goals. Using Sikes Act5 authority, in 1995 the Army entered into a cooperative agreement with The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create the Fort Bragg Private Lands Initiative (PLI). This cooperative agreement and the resulting private lands initiative marked a major innovation, and represented the first of their type within the military.

Under the Private Lands Initiative, The Nature Conservancy was empowered to negotiate the purchase of land or interest in the land (e.g., development rights or conservation easements) from willing sellers. The Army provides funding for the acquisitions, usually matched by the Conservancy, which holds title to the property or easements, and provides for the long-term management and restoration of the habitat. In turn, the Army has negotiated access for compatible training exercises. Acquisition priorities are set by a broad set of stakeholders constituted as the North Carolina Sandhills Conservation Partnership (, and take into account a broader regional perspective. Because of the buy-in of this broader partnership, the initiative has also been successful at attracting funding investments from other agencies, such as the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

The encroachment issues being experienced at Fort Bragg are being felt at installations across the country. As a result, this innovative Private Lands Initiative has served as the model for a nationwide implementation, known as Army Compatible Use Buffers (ACUB). While authority for the Fort Bragg PLI was under the wildlife-oriented Sikes Act, the 2003 Defense Authorization Act reaffirmed and expanded this authority to include constraints on military training, testing, and operations.6

Training at Fort Bragg

Top: Military training and biodiversity conservation are in a balancing act at Fort Bragg: 82nd Airborne Division personnel practice jumps. Bottom: a biologist drills an artificial nest cavity for red-cockaded woodpeckers. (Photos courtesy of Fort Bragg)


Although Fort Bragg has been a leader in developing new approaches for balancing military training and biodiversity conservation, it is not unique. Creative and successful approaches to managing ecological resources on military lands are taking place across the country, and across the services. This guide relies extensively on the experience and expertise of military conservation practitioners involved in these efforts. Common to many of these efforts are several success factors, which the Fort Bragg example highlights.

• Focus on the military mission. The underlying goal from the DoD perspective was to ensure the sustainability of Fort Bragg for carrying out critical training activities and maintaining military readiness. Placing the conservation work in the context of military readiness enabled the Army to tackle these problems with characteristic intensity and efficiency.

• Think regionally and work across boundaries. Taking the broader landscape into account was important for understanding the role that the base's lands play in regional conservation issues, and conversely, the impact that off-base land uses have on the base's ability to meet both mission and conservation goals.

• Rely on the best available science. A deeper understanding of the needs of the woodpecker, its response to different training regimes, and the processes required to maintain its habitat improved the effectiveness of management actions and allowed more flexibility in crafting approaches.

• Form partnerships and establish trust. Success required that individuals and organizations with different values and cultures establish working relationships based on trust. Establishing trust takes time and comes through each party gaining a better understanding for the goals of the others, leading to mutual respect. Partnerships allowed diverse expertise to be brought to bear on the problem.

Proceed to Next Section: State of the Nation: The Condition of Biodiversity Across the United States

© 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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