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Fort Stewart aims for eco-friendly buffers
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SOCIAL CIRCLE — Fort Stewart's 3rd Infantry Division trains daily to combat terrorism and other threats around the world. But one threat looms as close as the boundaries of the largest Army base east of the Mississippi River: population growth and the development it brings.
The development turning forest and field around Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield into more houses and businesses increases the potential for conflict over noise, smoke, lights and even radio signal interference with weapons systems. These "encroachments" can undermine operations at the 280,000-acre post that stretches from Glennville to Savannah. Wildlife and ecological functions also suffer as habitat is lost, management options such as prescribed burning are limited and training areas are moved to avoid problems on the perimeter.
"The more we can keep the areas around installations rural, the better off we all are," Tim Beaty, chief of Fish and Wildlife at Fort Stewart said.
The Department of Defense's answer is the Army Compatible Use Buffer program, or ACUB. Started in 2005, the program builds on defense department conservation efforts dating to 1960. Through ACUB, bases work with conservation partners such as the Georgia Land Trust and the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division to establish easements or otherwise shelter land from incompatible development around military post perimeters, building a bulwark against change that provides flexibility for training and room for coping with environmental regulations. Congress has appropriated more than $135 million for defense department buffer programs like ACUB since 2005.
Landowners who choose conservation easements may receive compensation for forfeited development rights and other incentives such as tax breaks, while retaining use of their property. Rare animals and plants benefit from saved habitat and increased capability for stewardship.
Joe Burnam began work this summer as a Wildlife Resources biologist focused on ACUB and its role in land conservation and wildlife habitat management around Fort Stewart.
"Right now, I'm predominantly looking at areas where development pressures are the greatest. ... As it works out, they're also pretty important areas ecologically," Burnam said.
Many of the nation's military bases were built in rural areas that have since given way to urban or suburban sprawl. Partly as a result, these posts have become "islands of refuge" for threatened and endangered species, according to a 2007 RAND Corp. report on the initiative that produced ACUB.
Fort Benning near Columbus is a haven for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. The ACUB program there, one of five approved in the Army's eight-state Southeastern region, teamed with The Nature Conservancy to protect up to 4,000 acres on the perimeter and help create forest corridors off the base for the woodpeckers.
Fort Stewart is home to five endangered or threatened species, including red-cockaded woodpeckers and the state's largest population of flatwoods salamanders. There are 20 or more other species of high conservation concern such as swallow-tailed kites.
The base that began in 1940 with a 5,000-acre purchase also features some of the largest remnants of the longleaf pine forest that once reached from Virginia to Texas. (In a recent conservation agreement, the National Wild Turkey Federation will team with Fort Stewart to plant more than 271,000 longleaf pine seedlings.)
Conserving natural habitat on and around the base is considered critical to maintaining Georgia's wildlife diversity.
Beaty said Fort Stewart hasn't experienced problems along its boundaries yet. But the potential is increasing and land values are rising. Burnam and Beaty also point out that without ACUB, almost all upland acreage and some bottomland within the targeted buffer area could be developed within 25 years.
The buffer goal for Fort Stewart is 120,000 acres. More than 1,800 have been protected. Agreements are pending for another 1,770, Beaty said. Priority areas are mainly along the base's southern and eastern edges, where the fragile Ogeechee River flows, forests thrive and new subdivisions rise.
Burnam's job, as part of Wildlife Resources' Nongame Conservation Section, in-volves identifying valuable conservation sites, teaming with other partners to raise awareness of ACUB and working to maintain and improve habitat on land already in the program. He's digging into the long list of federal aid easement options and helping lay the groundwork to get properties enrolled.
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