Training among endangered species

  • 21 Feb. 2012 -
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  • Last updated: 21 Feb. 2012 11:29

Most people would be surprised to learn that military training areas – whether they are forest, coastline or open fields – hold some of the most endangered species of plants and animals, precisely because they are used by the military. But military training areas, which are often protected in many NATO member states and some partner countries, are in fact used by more than training military personnel, serving as islands of biodiversity.

Unexpectedly, fresh tank tracks and shell craters can create the perfect habitats for some animals and plants due to their regular shapes and infrequent use. So much so, that military training areas throughout Europe and North America are full of listed species, often because the public cannot enter them.

In the United States, for example, approximately 21 per cent of federally listed (or endangered) species occur on Department of Defense lands, although these lands comprise only three per cent of the federal land base. According to NatureServe – a non-profit conservation organization whose mission is to provide the scientific basis for effective conservation action – 476 ‘at risk’ species (not yet federally listed) occur on these lands, with 24 occurring nowhere else.

In Poland, following a 2007 inventory of protected species of mushrooms, plants and animals, it was found that military training does not have a significantly negative impact on biological diversity. “Polish military training areas are located within the boundaries of large forest complexes with limited business activity,” explains Colonel Piotr Soltykiewicz, Chief of Analysis and Environmental Protection Branch at the Polish Ministry of National Defence. “This creates favourable conditions for the protection of various kinds of biotopes which have practically no chances of survival in other areas.”

Environmental protection training

The United States which relies on geographic information systems to map locations of flora and fauna, as well as to keep a database repository of all associated biodiversity data, is one of many nations which has begun to proactively train its soldiers on the importance of environmental protection.

“Awareness and training is a key way to protect the environment,” explains Nate Whelan, Program Manager for the United States Army Europe Integrated Training Area Management program and chair of NATO’s Environmental Training Specialist Team.“This includes proactively training soldiers and military units on environmental protection do’s and don’ts so that they can be good environmental stewards of the military training areas. At a minimum, the military has a responsibility to comply with relevant environmental protection laws and regulations. Although, as cited by many nations, training areas have evolved well beyond the minimum and have become islands of biodiversity.”

“We think that the best way to protect the environment is through broadly understood ecological education,” says Col. Soltykiewicz. He adds that before training starts, commanders instruct soldiers on how to protect the flora and fauna, and bring attention to places where they occur on a map. “This may be controversial, but the position of the Ministry of National Defence is that our armed forces have not been formed in order to protect the environment, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it into account. One needs to use elements of the environment for defence purposes in a sensible way.”

Environmental protection is a fine balance in lots of ways. Even the best intentions of soldiers may turn out to be destructive unless they are strengthened by environmental legislation. However, too many instructions could result in a natural unwillingness of the training troops to acknowledge and use them.

Threats to biodiversity

According to Col. Soltykiewicz and his Austrian counterpart, Lieutenant Colonel Gerhard Siller, the main reason for this level of biodiversity is the lack of human intervention in the areas for long periods.

“There are also a number of other reasons for biodiversity in military training areas,” says LTC Siller, “1) The absence of conventional agriculture; 2) The forming of new wilderness surfaces such as tank tracks and shell craters; and 3) Protection of old cultural landscape. Additionally there is no use of artificial fertilizers or commercial wood sales; there is often a lot of controls on the area and cooperation with local tourism.”

One of the biggest threats to military training areas is the reduction of military forces combined with the selling off of training land, says LTC Siller. Less training exercises mean less tank tracks and less shell craters, all of which are used by flora and fauna. “The problem in Austria is the same as in all other countries, the economic reasons are bigger than the ecological reasons,” he says, adding, “I once read a good statement: if the world was a bank, we would have saved it a long time ago.”