Wildlife finds sanctuary in the middle of chaos
When the Marines hit the beach near the test and training range at Eglin
Air Force Base, Fla., not much stands in their way. When the Air Force
launches a volley of missiles on the testing range, the action is enough
to keep even the stoutest battle-tested warrior down and under cover.
When the Navy fires a cruise missile into the test range area, not many
things can calmly stand by and watch.
But there are exceptions. In the chaos of hardware, munitions and people
that routinely bomb, stomp, drive and generally wreak havoc on the test
range, a few creatures have found a safe haven. In fact, with the help
of Eglin’s environmental protection people, hundreds of birds, amphibians
and even lichen are flourishing.
It’s a balancing act, said Bruce Hagedorn, a biologist with Eglin’s
environmental directorate. On one side: The mission of testing military
munitions and hardware and training people for war. On the other: providing
a habitat for a litany of species that otherwise may cease to exist.
Birds and bombs
The 46th Test Wing manages more than 720 square miles of test range —
much of Florida’s northwest panhandle region. All the U.S. military
services use the range at one time or another for a variety of training
needs. Most recently, the Navy and Marines started using Eglin to meet
fleet certification training requirements before shipping out to their
A vast amount of land — and more than 134,000 square miles of air
space around the eastern Gulf of Mexico — makes Eglin an ideal place
to practice the art of war. If it flies, it probably has cruised over
the vast gulf fronting the base. If it blows up, detonates, launches or
drops, it has probably done all those things somewhere among the 170 “impact
areas” nestled in the alternating thick green pine forests and stretches
of Florida savannah on the range.
All that space is also part of a rich ecosystem that is one of the most
diverse in North America, said Amanda Stevens, a Colorado State University
botanist on temporary duty with the environmental directorate.
“The [Florida] panhandle is a hot-spot of biodiversity,” she
said. “It’s the fifth most diverse habitat in North America,
and a lot of that diversity resides on Eglin.”
That biodiversity means lots of endangered species call the test range
home. From sea turtles nesting on the narrow white stretches of nearby
Santa Rosa island, to red-cockaded woodpeckers excavating cavities into
longleaf pine trees that flourish in one of the last major stands of longleaf
pine on the Gulf coast, the base is host to more than 50 species on Florida's
endangered list [see “Eglin’s Animal
The state and a host of federal agencies take protecting endangered species
seriously, but Eglin has managed to find a steady balance between supporting
the mission while enhancing the ecosystem, said Mike Spaits, a spokesman
for the environmental directorate.
In the early 1990s, the Department of Defense was looking for a place
to base a series of tests aimed at improving rocket and aircraft propulsion.
Since test ranges like Eglin make money by “renting” test
space to various concerns, the contract would have been beneficial to
the base and the Air Force, Mr. Hagedorn said. However, the Jackson Guard
raised concerns that no one had considered the impact of the proposed
mission on the red cockaded woodpecker. The Air Force decided to avoid
possibly endangering the woodpecker’s habitat and gave up the mission.
“Since then, we’ve been much more proactive in how we approach
the species and habitats under our protection,” Mr. Hagedorn said.
“We never want to have someone cite a lack of information about
a natural resource as a reason to lose a mission again.”
Of birds and Marines
Protecting species at Eglin begins long before a test mission starts,
said 1st Lt. James Madeiros, an Eglin public affairs spokesman. The natural
resources management team, including the Jackson Guard, keeps extensive
information about the species that call Eglin home, and constant monitoring
makes sure information is up to date.
When someone wants to use the test range, the environmental people are
among the first called to give an opinion on the possible effects the
test mission would have on the environment. If the experts think the test
might cause problems, their first priority is figuring out how to reduce
the threat to the species.
“We’re not in the business of swapping our national defense
mission for our environmental mission or vice versa,” the lieutenant
said. “We want to find a way for both elements to work together.
And we usually do.”
Most recently, Eglin had to protect the woodpecker’s natural habitat
and still allow the Marines to train throughout the range. The Navy needed
a place for Marine expeditionary units to practice beach landings and
penetrations. Eglin’s huge test area and beachfront access from
the gulf made the base a natural selection.
But Marines stomping in the pine forests and humvees cruising on dirt
roads while bombs explode in the distance don’t create a very inviting
atmosphere for amorous woodpeckers looking to build homes and reproduce.
In fact, it can be downright threatening.
The solution? Tape. Reflective aluminum tape, the type normally seen on
highway rail guards.
“We put reflective tape on the trees to mark a 200-foot buffer around
what we believe are woodpecker host cavity trees,” Mr. Hagedorn
said. “Then we told the Marines that whenever they saw that tape,
they had to stay at least 200 yards away and couldn’t stop in the
vicinity for more than two hours. That meant no bivouacking under the
trees or idling motors for long durations. And honestly, it didn’t
seem to bother the Marines. We didn’t have any problems.”
The Marines also had to deal with rare lichen that grows on the white
sands of Santa Rosa island. When Hurricane Opal hit the island in the
1990s, it all but wiped out the population. A small colony survived and
has managed to thrive where few people go.
But Santa Rosa Island has long been a prime testing area. The island stretches
in front of Eglin’s main coastline, meaning the Marines have to
cross the narrow island to reach the mainland. Two thousand Marines and
a parade of amphibious vehicles can be perilous for tiny lichen clinging
for dear life to the white sand.
Again, the Jackson Guard came up with a simple solution: A series of wooden
stakes with ribbons used to mark a 100-yard wide corridor across the island.
The Marines landed, saw the stakes, and drove between the markers until
they hit the water on the other side. Result: No lost lichen, no unhappy
“[Natural resources management] has to take a lot of concerns into
account,” Lieutenant Madeiros said. “But they’ve been
remarkably successful balancing things. When you get out on the range,
it’s sometimes hard to believe we conduct tests out there. They’ve
done a good job of maintaining a natural ecological state, and the success
of the wildlife we protect is evidence of that.”
a field technician, helps excavate a dig site along Eglin’s East
Bay shoreline. Archaeologists believe the site is of an ancient human
civilization that existed years before people were known to have settled
in the area.
Chad Kinslow, a field technician, sifts through debris hoping to find
artifacts or clues to confirm the possible existence of an ancient human
settlement along Eglin’s East Bay shoreline. Like wildlife conservation,
the Air Force puts heavy emphasis on protecting the history and heritage
of the Eglin area.
Pete Coman, a helicopter manager from Gila National Forest, N.M., uses
an all-terrain vehicle outfitted with a burn torch to set a controlled
burn in one of Eglin’s training ranges. Prescribed burning is the
most effective way to control wildfires caused by live military training
ordnance and lightning storms. By burning dry grasses and debris, firefighters
destroy the fuel wildfires need to get started.
A red-cockaded woodpecker builds its nest by drilling a round hole with
its beak approximately 3 inches in diameter through the sapwood and into
the heart of a tree. The woodpeckers live in small groups in one- to 10-acre
areas called clusters, or colonies, and have made training ranges their
Along the East Bay shoreline archaeologists study a formation of oyster
shells hoping to unearth clues to what they think could be a human settlement
dating to a time before any known people are thought to have existed in
the area. The dig is still in its early stages, but already scientists
have found enough artifacts to encourage more extensive digging.