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Military Quietly Becoming A Major Environmental Steward

Evening Edition

— The Department of Defense is quietly becoming a force for habitat conservation in Southern California and the rest of the nation.

The DoD is helping buy fragile habitat off-base as part of the effort to protect the military training mission on-base.

Aired 6/27/13 on KPBS News.

The military has long been recognized as a defender of endangered habitats on base, but the Department of Defense is moving the focus to land around military installations.

In the heart of Camp Pendleton, the land juts upward offering the perfect vantage point for Ken Quigley. From the hill, Camp Pendleton's environmental planner surveyed a large southern chunk of the base.

"You can see the firebreak just over the top of the vehicle parking area there, and that runs along the edge of the base," Quigley said. "You can see how close some of the houses come, right to the edge of the base."

Those houses limit military training on the sprawling 125,000 acre facility. And training is at the heart of the Marine Corps' mission.

The base boasts more than 30 training ranges, where live rounds pepper the landscape. Nearly all of those areas serve as a home to an endangered species. To soften its training footprint, the military is working to manage these vulnerable animal populations. That's because the military has a vested interest in making sure wildlife thrives.

"We want habitat that can be used by species that we're managing for, so there's more habitat available for that species," Quigley said. "The ultimate to us would be to find a way to have these species reach recovery and become de-listed."

That's because the military's species management burden gets a lot lighter if it is dealing with fewer endangered species.

Clearly, the military training has an impact on vulnerable populations on the base but officers are also looking to have a positive impact on endangered species just outside of the base's borders.

"This would've been a house pad," said Chris Basilevac, planner for the Nature Conservancy. He stood on a hillside just outside Camp Pendleton. "This would've been a house here and you can kinda see a road going up the hill. There may have even been another house on top of that hill."

The hill on which he stood was bought and preserved in 2007 as part of the Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative. The military paid half the purchase price and the Nature Conservancy paid the rest.

Now this overgrown hillside is a preserved wildlife gateway to a vital North County corridor.

"The Santa Margarita runs right along the bottom of the canyon here. On the other side, you have the Santa Ana Mountains, the Santa Margarita mountains," Basilevac said.

The river valley snakes all the way over the Cleveland National Forest. Nature Conservancy biologist John Randall said buying and setting aside the habitat there, nourishes wild populations on Camp Pendleton but the valley's beauty can make preservation tough.

"The river is desirable property. Folks want to live along places like this," said Randall. "And this has kept the integrity of the habitat here. For the animals and plants to make these movements through the corridor. So yes, this is really an important piece."

The river valley allows animals to find their way into the region's pockets of habitat. While not pristine, the land needs to be kept somewhat wild.

"The river corridor here is quite rugged, you can see," said Randall. "It has not been heavily developed, so it's still largely a natural habitat. That's not a foregone conclusion. It could have been developed. We're really lucky it's in the shape that it's in now."

The military program that made this land purchase possible has protected the habitat around 64 military installations around the country.

Here in San Diego County, the land purchase is a welcome addition to the region's multiple species habitat preservation plan.

The military is a key player in the effort to build up the region's preserves.

"It's creating important connections to our existing preserve system. So it's not just the money, it's where the money is being spent," said Michael Beck, board member of the Endangered Habitats League.

Federal dollars have purchased more than a billion dollars worth of ecologically valuable land bordering military installations.

Both Camp Pendleton and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar have had projects approved.

Pendleton environmental planner Quigley said military leaders recognize the value of creating environmental buffers and are willing to spend the money.

"The Santa Margarita River, our last wildlife corridor and conductivity to other open spaces in Southern California, if that were to be blocked, then what you'll find is Camp Pendleton becomes an island," Quigley said. "Part of the Cleveland National Forest also is part of that, but we become an island and that changes the biodiversity."

The military sees value in strategic spending, Quigley said, even if it is off base. Protecting endangered species now might avoid putting extra shackles on their training missions in the future.

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