Unique Partners Practice Environmental Stewardship

by Perdita Savage Belk, Public Information Coordinator, NRCS, Columbia, South Carolina

Tucked away in South Carolina's heartland is Fort Jackson, the nation's leading U.S. Army Training Center. As the largest basic training installation in the country, training over 35,000 soldiers annually, the base boasts almost 53,000 acres of sandhills. However, decades of intense training have caused various degrees of erosion and water quality concerns, which led officials to develop a natural resources plan for Fort Jackson. In an effort to address these concerns and to achieve the delicate balance between training efforts and the environment, base officials implemented the Land Rehabilitation and Maintenance (LRAM) program in 1991. The program's first order of business was to enlist the technical expertise of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

"NRCS was already consulting Fort Jackson on conservation issues," said Jim Wilson, NRCS district conservationist with Richland Conservation District who works intimately with the project. "When they asked us to inventory the erosion conditions on base, it was just a natural progression of our working relationship."

NRCS' resource inventory was the initial step in LRAM's mission of remedying damaged training lands and striving to maintain and improve these lands for posterity. Once NRCS completed a field assessment, it was evident that Fort Jackson had specific erosion areas affecting training and sensitive resource areas that needed to be addressed. Base officials now had the foundation to develop an in-depth management plan and to request the necessary funding to treat the erosion concerns.

Overall, approximately one hundred thirty erosion sites needing attention were identified by NRCS. Since Fort Jackson had limited manpower available in soil and water management, they entered into an interagency agreement with NRCS, who began planning and design work on thirteen sites in July 1992. The agreement was attractive to Fort Jackson because the NRCS resource management team could complete the project from start to finish, including providing the engineering, contracting, cost estimates, construction inspection, certification as well as identifying and preserving sensitive resources such as endangered species and wetlands. With the technical aspects covered, Fort Jackson officials concentrated on securing financial assistance to cover the long-term.

The greatest challenge facing the project was coordination between all land users at Fort Jackson and the conservationists implementing the plans. Training soldiers remains the number one priority, therefore, adjustments had to be made to accommodate sustained training on various sites. Other areas were utilized by a number of different organizations, including forestry and wildlife divisions, who also had input into specific site plans and long-term treatment.

Doyle Allen, Fort Jackson soil conservationist and site project leader, was initially concerned that the erosion control work would interfere with scheduled base training. "At first, I thought it was going to be difficult coordinating training around project work," he admitted. "A good plan could potentially interfere with training, create safety hazards or impact an endangered species. However, excellent communication between the trainers and the conservationists has created a good working atmosphere with little conflict."

Allen, who prioritizes the sites and sets the parameters for NRCS, serves as a liaison between Fort Jackson and NRCS, acquiring the necessary range clearances to move ahead with a project. These decisions often involve temporarily closing ranges and rerouting soldiers. "The officers and NCO's are taking pride in their ranges and are willing to temporarily relocate to another range so that remediation work can be accomplished," he said. "We've even had some call the resource team to look at additional erosion problems, which shows they are sensitive to how their ranges look and work."

Working closely with Allen is Ricky Walker, NRCS soil conservation technician and general inspector and supervisor of the actual project work. He plans, surveys and designs erosion systems to reduce erosion and improve water quality. He also receives engineering support from NRCS engineer Jerry Kay. Walker keeps both partners informed of project progress and provides a proactive work environment. A mutual respect between the two enables the cooperative effort to run smoothly on a daily basis.

"I feel like we are making a lot of progress," said Walker, observing bulldozers move earth around, preparing for vegetation on a once highly erodible site. "Some jobs take longer than others due to work complexity, schedule coordination, and the potential impact on endangered species and plants. But it's definitely a worthwhile effort. Fort Jackson has had erosion problems for over fifty years, primarily due to base expansion and intense training. We're just getting a handle on correcting the situation, which will be a long-term quality solution."

Approximately $300,000 is channeled into the project each year. On average, it takes one year to plan and design the sites where construction will occur. Before construction can begin on a selected site, a Record of Environmental Consideration (REC) must be completed. The REC outlines whether the project will impact wetlands, threatened and endangered plants or animals, cultural resources, or other environmentally sensitive areas. A process has been established whereby planning and engineering are ongoing in order to administer two construction contracts each year. The agreement between Fort Jackson and NRCS is a ten year plan, extending through 2001, which involves the identification of new sites as well as the ongoing repair of identified sites.

"Working with NRCS is enjoyable because they have a very common sense approach to solving natural resource problems," comments Allen. "We benefit from the expertise because their solutions have been tested and proven and they have an excellent reputation for following through with project applications. In addition, the systems NRCS designs are effective and cost-efficient."

The South Carolina partnership between Fort Jackson and NRCS is also recognized as one of the most successful among the agreements signed nationwide between the two agencies. Successful because a variety of severe and complex erosion problems have been corrected, using proven NRCS conservation measures as well as newly developed technology.

"I believe the agreement is one of the highlights of our natural resources program because it is a win-win situation for both parties," said Mark Berkland, NRCS state conservationist in Columbia. "Our inter-agency agreement is one of the largest with a military installation, and we are enjoying an excellent working relationship. I'm sure that there will be other programs in the future that we will collaborate on."

As a result of the project work done by NRCS, Fort Jackson has been the recipient of several conservation steward awards including the South Carolina Wildlife Federation Land Conservationist of the Year (1993); the Richland Conservation District 1993 Conservation Achievement Award; third place winner, Chief of Staff, Army, Natural Resources Conservation Award (1993); and the 1996 South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Stewardship Development Award.

"The conservation of soil is an important mission at Fort Jackson. It enhances the land needed for effectively training soldiers," emphasized Mark Dutton, Chief, Natural Resources Branch, Environmental and Natural Resources Division at Fort Jackson. "Our relationship with NRCS allows Fort Jackson to protect the environment while providing sustainable quality training areas for future generations.

"We salute NRCS for their help in assisting us with practicing good stewardship of the natural resources at Fort Jackson!" L&W

For more information, contact Doyle Allen at (803)751-7232.

©2000, 1999, 1998 Land and Water, Inc.
Monday, November 13, 2000 - http://www.landandwater.com/features/vol42no3/vol42no3_2.html