Q&A: California Desert Military Report

 In June, 2017 we released a report looking at the various ways military missions and environmental health are intertwined in the California Desert region. This report provides a framework to local communities, conservation organizations, and military interests on how to ensure the viability of military missions in the region. We explored the connections between this new report and the report we released in 2015, which tackles similar issues in Arizona, by talking with the author of both reports, Ian Dowdy, Sun Corridor Program Director. 

1. Sonoran Institute released a report in 2015 examining the mutual benefits of preserving Arizona’s military mission and publicly owned lands. How does the California report build on the findings of the Arizona study?

The report released in June of 2017 builds upon a model that was tremendously successful at raising awareness of the value of public lands in preserving the military mission in Arizona. The 2015 report was widely cited and distributed in local and national media outlets at a time when public lands were under threat from the populist movement to transfer public lands to the states. During this time, the report established a new narrative; that public lands bring irreplaceable value to preserving military missions across Arizona.

The California report used the model that was developed with the Arizona advisors and the findings are extremely timely today when 27 National Monuments are under review by the Trump administration. An unintended outcome from our work in California and Arizona is the evidence that Monuments that are recommended for reduction and complete elimination by the Congressional Western Caucus are providing notable service in both states in protecting flight corridors and preventing incompatible uses around the fence lines of military installations.

2. How has Arizona progressed in this area since the original report was released in 2015?

Since the report was released, there has been more attention given to the benefits that public lands contribute to the military mission. Today there are many organizations that are building on this narrative, and working to build stronger relationships with the military community. Organizations like The Wilderness Society and Arizona Wilderness Coalition now have veterans’ programs that seek to connect men and women with PTSD and other combat-related conditions with the therapy of the outdoors. In addition, some businesses like Boeing have been reinforcing the message through presentations to business and community groups. 

Most importantly, the military airspace is now accurately depicted on maps that can be used when local communities are updating their General and Comprehensive Plans. Since the expansion of the renewable energy industry a decade ago, military officials have been in a defensive position to prevent serious and long-term impacts to their missions. Now, rural counties will benefit from the information we have compiled, as they determine where potentially conflicting land uses may not be appropriate.

3. What similarities did you find in the two regions as you compiled the California report?

In both areas, public lands are essential to keeping the military mission viable through prevention of incompatible uses and habitat protection for endangered and threatened species that rely on military lands to maintain healthy populations. These two issues require that public lands be managed effectively to ensure that the military can perform their missions and that habitat connectivity and quality be preserved on federal lands near military. Both regions also have excellent natural resource managers on their installations that work closely with federal agencies and the conservation community. In California the military plays a big role in preserving the threatened Mojave desert tortoise while in Arizona the Barry M. Goldwater Range has been central in the recovery efforts of the endangered Sonoran pronghorn.

4. Which issues and situations are unique to each region?

With a higher percentage of public lands, the California Desert region has a higher level of reliance on missions that occur over these areas. The threatened Mojave desert tortoise is a significant management issue prevailing across California desert military facilities as they are large and contain a lot of habitat for this species. In Arizona, though some bases, like the Barry M. Goldwater Range and Fort Huachuca have species management issues, they are not as pervasive and common across the landscape. In Arizona, there are also fewer permanent protections on federal lands than in California, which allows for a greater number of potential threats to ongoing missions.

5. What lessons can each region learn from the other?

Each region can learn some important lessons from the other. In particular, Arizona enjoys a tremendous amount of public support for its military bases. This may be due to the fact that installations are a bit more urban: Fort Huachuca is in Sierra Vista, Davis-Monthan AFB is in Tucson, and Luke AFB is near to Phoenix. Each installation has a strong advocacy organization that works to ensure that there are limited threats to the long-term success of military operations as they are important economic drivers of these communities. In California, we are not seeing this level of support. Though communities value their installations, they are much smaller and have not developed these advocacy organizations that could help to proactively address current and future encroachment concerns. Arizona, on the other hand, could learn a lot from California with respect to protecting public lands. Throughout the desert region of the state, much of the public land is under a designation like National Conservation Area, National Park, Wilderness Area, or National Monument. With these protections in place, there is more certainty about future land use, along with more resources used to plan and manage the land. In Arizona, there have been efforts to protect lands under military airspace, like the Arizona Sonoran Desert Heritage Act, but there seems to be less interest in achieving these protections.

6. What is the most significant finding of the California report?

The two most important findings are that public lands protect the military’s special-use airspace, and that public lands protect wildlife habitat, which reduces the cost and oversight needed for endangered species management. Airspace is especially well preserved in cases where the lands near military bases have a protective designation like Wilderness, National Conservation Area, or National Monument. In California, the Giant Sequoia and Mojave Trails National Monuments lie almost entirely under military airspace, providing value to the military. In fact, 1.9 million acres of important military training airspace are protected by the multiple National Monuments in the region. Furthermore, federal lands provide value by reducing the cost and burden associated with managing threatened and endangered species. The Mojave desert tortoise, for example, continues to have a declining population leading to management challenges for all military facilities in the region. Protected lands can be more effectively managed as they are able to place restrictions on off-highway vehicle use and prohibit activities that degrade habitat quality and cause direct mortality to species like the tortoise.

7. What influence do you hope the California report has on military operations and the conservation of public lands in that region?

The hope is that reports like this continue to raise awareness of how important land management can be in sustaining viable military operations. For the past 12 years there have been little more than hints of a future military Base Reallocation and Closure (BRAC) process, which has left some communities apathetic to the inevitable–with changing military needs, there will soon be a need to close and realign military bases throughout the country. In the next few years, once a BRAC process commences, communities throughout California will use the report to demonstrate why the Department of Defense should retain the installations they value. In addition, it is trusted that existing protected lands like the Mojave Trails and Giant Sequoia National Monuments will retain their status, in-part, due to the information in our report. Other federal lands may also be protected that have benefit to the environment and to military facilities. Overall, our goal is that activities to protect important resources on public land will be supported and expanded in the coming years throughout the West by both political parties—particularly where the military mission will benefit from the assurance that these areas will be free from development and provide a safe place for Threatened and Endangered Species.

Blog Post By: Ian Dowdy, Sun Corridor Program Director