Integrating Mission Requirements with Threatened and Endangered Species by Don George

Creative Assessment of Mission Requirements Supports Threatened and Endangered Species

There is rarely enough money to meet natural resources program requirements on military installations. One way to address that problem is to constantly be on the lookout for ways to combine mission related and natural resources requirements. Opportunities to combine the two requirements will obviously vary widely throughout the Department of Defense, but clearly understanding mission requirements is the first step to assessing the potential of this funding strategy. Described here is one successful example from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Background

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) is situated on a barrier island paralleling the central east coast of Florida. This 15,800-acre installation is not only America's premier gateway to space, but also one of the few long sections of Atlantic Ocean coastline (21.5 km) that remains relatively undeveloped. Due to the extremely hazardous nature of the Air Force's mission on CCAFS, large tracts of land remain as naturally vegetated explosive safety buffers.

Natural Setting

In 1997, the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (FNAI) surveyed CCAFS and documented eleven specific native plant communities. Some of these communities occur only as thin ribbons adjacent to the coastline, such as beach dune, coastal grassland and coastal strand; however, the vast majority of undeveloped land is scrub. The scrub plant community on CCAFS is dominated by various oak species, Florida hickory, palmetto, rosemary, wax myrtle, and numerous herb species. 

The coastal oak scrub plant community and other scrub plant associations were once prevalent in much of central Florida prior to the last fifty years of development and subsequent wildfire suppression. Consequently, government-owned land such as CCAFS and the adjacent Kennedy Space Center constitute the majority of viable scrub oak habitat remaining in Florida. Directly related to loss of habitat is the decline of faunal populations and subsequent designation of the more vulnerable species on state and federal threatened and endangered species lists.

Critical Species

The “flagship” species for scrub oak habitat is the Florida scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens). This robin-sized bird is territorial and monogamous, and the young become helpers with subsequent offspring. The scrub-jay lives in a family group and is not often seen outside its 25-acre territory unless it's a second year bird pursuing a mate or recruiting into a new territory. Due to the declining numbers resulting from habitat loss and fragmentation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the Florida scrub-jay as a threatened species in 1987. The USFWS has identified CCAFS as an integral component of the effort to recover this threatened species.

Accommodating Mission Requirements

One mission-critical launch support operation on CCAFS that affects scrub vegetation is the creation and periodic maintenance of instrumentation and optical lines of sight. Technicians operate instruments and cameras trained on launch vehicles (rockets) and their payloads (satellites) prior to and immediately following launch. Instrumentation vans and mobile cameras are positioned on earthen mounds situated at various distances from the launch pads. Lines of sight may cover miles of previously undisturbed habitat, and maintaining their visual integrity has historically been a challenge, with the potential to disrupt launch schedules. Previously, the lines were created by pushing down vegetation with a bulldozer, allowing plants to regenerate. This made possible invasion by exotic species. Natural resources managers realized the plight of the range instrumentation squadron while similarly grappling with the dilemma of restoring scrub to optimal scrub-jay habitat.

New Management Strategy

Two unique characteristics of scrub habitat that are critical to supporting scrub-jays are oaks in the one- to two-meter height range for nesting and a significant ratio of open, sandy areas for caching acorns and identifying predators. Typically, this mosaic is maintained by natural, lightning-induced wildfires. A prescribed burning program implemented by the Air Force has improved habitat and reduced critical fuel loads, but has not successfully mimicked natural fire intensity necessary for creating openings and a scrub mosaic. It seemed that natural resources managers were trying to create open, sandy areas immediately adjacent to low growing scrub while the instrumentation folks were at the same time desperately trying to keep their lines of sight open and operational. With limited funding available to manage threatened and endangered species, and operations and maintenance budgets cut to support the war in the Middle East, it became clear that a multi-office effort could meet mission and natural resources goals while providing additional benefits to fire safety, security, infrastructure, and grounds maintenance.

Combining Mission and Environmental Funding Objectives

To achieve these multiple use goals, the 45th Space Wing Environmental Flight developed a policy, entitled “Land Clearing for Mission Support” that describes methods for conducting all types of routine land clearing requirements while simultaneously creating optimal scrub habitat. These clearing requirements include the lines of sight, security clear zones, firebreaks, utility corridors, road shoulders, facility set-backs, and others. In addition, previous land clearing that involved the loss of potential scrub-jay habitat required consultation with the USFWS. However, by creating openings, optimal scrub oak height and additional “edge” habitat with the new clearing policy, consultation, and more importantly, compensation for scrub loss is no longer necessary. Further, by incorporating the policy into all new requirements and contracts, the 45th Space Wing will ensure adequate funding is provided to guarantee long-term maintenance of the newly created habitats and furtherance of scrub and barrier island biodiversity.

Conclusion

As this example demonstrates, natural resources managers may significantly increase their funding by understanding mission requirements and, where feasible, integrating mission requirements with those for specific natural resources projects.

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