DoD Biodiversity Conservation Handbook
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Chapter 10: Beyond the Fenceline

Public meetings at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, Montana, sponsored by the Montana Air National Guard. Public meetings are an essential tool to improve military-community cooperation. (Photo: Douglas Ripley)

Many of America's military installations sprung up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forests, scrublands, prairie, or desert. Musket balls and artillery shells could fall where they may; the assertive purr of propeller-driven airplane engines disturbed few humans. But then came population growth. Towns, cities, and suburbs grew up around the installations, typically to serve the needs of the military community itself. As development edged closer to the military fenceline, both base commanders and adjacent civilians started using the word "encroachment." The commanders realized that they needed partnerships with members of the civilian community, if for no other reason than a desire to keep the peace at home, as well as around the world.1

The need for partnerships became even more apparent as the modern environmental era blossomed. Civilians, scientists, elected politicians, and military commanders learned that the lands they controlled were treasuries of biological diversity, and that it was legally and ethically imperative that the diversity be protected. Some of that land even housed species that elsewhere had been trampled to the point of extinction. The commanders and civilians more fully appreciated, too, that a military installation's environmental obligations did not end at the fenceline – that whatever a base did to its air, water, foliage, and animals affected the larger ecosystem. Thus it became essential that an installation's land manager think beyond the fenceline, and that the manager seek out non-military partners to help perform what had become an increasingly complex mission.

Public involvement in an installation's environmental life is vital. A basic document on the subject, Leader's Guide to Environmental Public Involvement, published in February 2005 as part of the Army Public Involvement Toolbox2, makes that clear. The guide dismissed any notions that "public involvement" is just a synonym for "public relations":

In making use of public involvement, we are often trying to influence stakeholders so that they understand and accept an Army approach to an environmental concern or a decision based on Army-unique requirements. However, we must remember that the leader's definition of influence includes involvement. The objective of public involvement is not necessarily to convince others that we are right. Instead, public involvement should provide stakeholders with opportunities to provide input about issues that will improve our decisions...

By including stakeholders in our decision-making processes, and listening to their input, we give them a reason to become involved with us in a positive way. Over time, that involvement helps build relationships upon which trust is based, and trust is a basic bond of leadership.

And furthermore, says the guide, involving the community with regular twoway communication is a great way to head off conflicts and hard feelings. The 36-page publication sets forth detailed and useful suggestions for encouraging the community's participation. Some of them are:

  • First, build a strategic planning team, made up of representatives of the commander; the public affairs department; a specialist in risk communications; environmental managers, and the medical department. This team will guide the public participation process.
  • Assess the community's concerns and interests and determine how its members get their information.
  • Identify the key stakeholders in community-military relations.
  • Survey the community, through interviews, telephone surveys, and/or focus groups.
  • Communicate with the public, through notices, comment periods, meetings, and a publicly available administrative record.
  • Along the way, provide speakers to inform the public; deal with the media; operate websites.

Proceed to Next Section: Plenty of Examples

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Fred Powledge is a writer and editor.

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